Stephen Jones—COO of the Cowboys, Lord of Forth Worth, and son of Jerry—gave an interview at the combine Tuesday in Indianapolis that hinted at the Dallas Cowboys’ plans for the next half-decade. Defensive end Demarcus Lawrence, quarterback Dak Prescott, receiver Amari Cooper, and running back Ezekiel Elliott are all in line for new contracts, and how Dallas plays its cards will determine the franchise trajectory for the foreseeable future.
The Cowboys love their stars—their logo is a star, the Jerry World megacomplex is known as “The Star,” and now their offseason will be defined by how they handle the four true stars on the Cowboys. Let’s examine all of the looming decisions Dallas will have to make and what the team will (and should) do.
Demarcus Lawrence, Defensive End
Lawrence has 25 sacks over the past two seasons combined. No other Cowboy has 10. The Cowboy with the second-most sacks last year, Randy Gregory, was suspended indefinitely Tuesday for violating the terms of his conditional reinstatement. Without Lawrence, the Cowboys’ young linebackers and athletic secondary may not have blossomed last season. Lawrence was franchise-tagged for $17 million last year, and he was reportedly seeking around $17 million annually in his next contract. If the Cowboys can’t reach a deal by March 5, the last day to franchise-tag players, they’d likely tag Lawrence again and continue negotiating. It would be the second straight year, so he would earn 120 percent of $17 million—$20.5 million—by playing on the tag. Both sides would likely want to get a deal done before the season, and there’s a strong chance Lawrence would seek a deal that would pay him $20.5 million annually. That number would put his figure above the deal Von Miller signed in 2016 for $19 million annually and underneath the deal Aaron Donald signed last year for $22.5 million annually.
A more important figure than average annual value is guaranteed money; there’s a large discrepancy between the $51 million guaranteed Chandler Jones signed in 2017 (which the Cowboys might point to in negotiations) and the $70 million guaranteed Miller got (which Lawrence’s side might demand).
Stephen Jones didn’t rule out using the franchise tag on the star pass rusher—which would give the two sides until mid-July to hammer out a long-term agreement before Lawrence would have to play 2019 on the tag—but he said Tuesday that he was confident a deal will get done: “Everybody’s on the record, from Jerry [Jones] to myself to [head coach] Jason [Garrett] to [vice president of player personnel] Will [McClay] on what we think of D-Law.”
The Verdict: Pay the man. Without Lawrence’s pass-rush abilities, the progress Dallas has made on defense—from the growth of linebacker Jaylon Smith to the rise of Leighton Vander Esch to the improvements of cornerbacks Byron Jones and Anthony Brown—could come undone.
Dak Prescott, Quarterback
“Listen, Dak is the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys,” Jerry Jones told 105.3 The Fan in November. “He’s young and he’s going to get extended.”
The question is for how much. There is a strong argument to be made that Dak is currently the most underpaid player in sports. He has earned an average of $915,000 per year in his three seasons while being the most visible player for the most valuable sports franchise on earth, valued at nearly $5 billion. Prescott is entering the final year of his rookie contract, and Spotrac estimates Prescott’s market value is a shade over $25 million annually. If he were to be paid that, it would tie him with Drew Brees and Derek Carr for the sixth-highest average salary in the league, and that kind of money would raise the bar by which the former fourth-round pick is judged.
Prescott tied for the league lead in fumbles last year and led the league with 15 sacks taken that were his fault, rather than his offensive line’s, according to Pro Football Focus. But the team has been highly productive since he took over: The only quarterback with more wins than Prescott since the beginning of 2016 is Tom Brady. Wins are a team stat, not an individual one, but they certainly matter in negotiations. They’re even more important considering how quickly the Cowboys threw Prescott into the fire as a rookie.
“Brees, Brady, Manning, Aikman, Romo, that doesn’t happen overnight,” Stephen Jones told ESPN’s Todd Archer in early January. “Those guys have had a lot of ballgames and seen a lot of defenses and been seasoned like no other. Dak, I keep reminding everybody, is in his third year. No one wants to be better at what he does than him. And he’s got an insatiable appetite to be great. He’s got rare leadership skills and rare ‘it’ factor. The best thing I like about him is he’s a winner.”
The Verdict: Jerry has already laid down the law that Dak will be extended, and the Cowboys surely want to avoid the franchise-tag death spiral that sent Kirk Cousins out of Washington. The Cowboys will pony up for Dak “in a very progressive way.”
Amari Cooper, Wide Receiver
The Cowboys shipped off a first-round pick to Oakland for Cooper in late October, and he promptly made the Joneses look like geniuses by finishing with 725 yards and six touchdowns in his nine regular-season games with the team. Dallas has no regrets about the trade.
Cowboys Stephen Jones in a draft season without a first-round pick: “When the Raiders pick with our pick, we’ll be watching Amari [Cooper] highlight tape.”— Lindsay Jones (@bylindsayhjones) February 26, 2019
Cooper is set to play on his fifth-year option (which the Cowboys can use because Cooper was a first-rounder) that will pay him $13.9 million in 2019, but he’ll be a free agent in 2020. It would be calamitous for Dallas to lose Cooper after sacrificing a first-rounder for him, so extending him is a must. The franchise-tag value for wide receivers is $17.1 million this year, and it’s safe to say that number will slightly rise in 2020, so Cooper would likely be looking for a deal that pays him at least $17 million annually. That would put him ahead of DeAndre Hopkins and Mike Evans and into Antonio Brown territory.
The Verdict: The Cowboys have to keep Cooper. If he plays anything like he did last season, he’ll be worth it. Even if he takes a step back, it might not matter. It’s hard to see the Cowboys letting him go considering what they gave up to get him.
Ezekiel Elliott, Running Back
Elliott is perhaps the most famous player on the team, but he’s also last in line among their top players for a new deal. He’ll make $3.9 million this season, and his fifth-year option will likely be similar to Cooper’s ($13.9 million), as Cooper was the fourth overall pick for Oakland a year before Elliott was taken in the same spot. That gives the Cowboys team control over Elliott for 2019, 2020, and, if they franchise-tag him, 2021. That timeline should imply a new contract for Elliott is not on Dallas’s radar yet, but Stephen Jones said Tuesday the team is already thinking about how to extend Elliott.
“We’ve got it budgeted that we’re gonna pay Zeke a significant contract at some point,” Jones said. “He’s right there at the top of the best of the business if not the best. Certainly saw what Todd Gurley got paid and [we] know that’s probably where it starts and we’ll go from there.”
Jones isn’t throwing out Gurley’s name lightly. Gurley, the 2017 Offensive Player of the Year who was drafted a year before Elliott, was in a similar situation with the Rams last year. Like Elliott, Gurley was a top-10 draft pick who cemented himself as the team’s star player just three years into his career. Also like Elliott, Gurley had at least two more years of team control and was seemingly behind a star defensive lineman (Aaron Donald), a receiver the team traded a first-round pick for (Brandin Cooks), and a quarterback on a rookie deal drafted in 2016 (Jared Goff) before he could get paid. Yet the Rams signed Gurley to a $57.5 million extension with $45 million guaranteed last offseason.
Elliott has led the NFL in rushing twice and in rushing yards per game three times in his three-year career, and his agents wouldn’t have a difficult time arguing that he has been the most productive running back since he entered the league. Jones invoking Gurley’s name is probably music to Elliott’s agents’ ears.
The biggest concern a team might have about extending Elliott is his suspension in 2017, when a league investigation found evidence that Elliott “engaged in physical violence against Ms. [Tiffany] Thompson on multiple occasions” in July 2016, according to Todd Jones, the NFL’s special counsel for conduct. But given how fiercely Jerry Jones fought commissioner Roger Goodell on Elliott’s suspension, it’s hard to imagine the NFL’s findings would play a role in negotiations.
The Verdict: Elliott is staying.
You probably noticed a theme in this post: The Cowboys want to keep all of their star players, and they’re willing to pay them top dollar to do so. Dallas is able to shell out for its stars in the first place because of its savvy maneuvering with its offensive line. The team locked up Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, and Travis Frederick to long-term deals at salaries well below what they could earn on the open market (Smith and Martin make roughly the same money as Nate Solder and Andrew Norwell, two vastly inferior players, signed for last offseason). The offensive line was handled well, though the Cowboys failed to take full advantage of the window when Prescott was a cheap asset because of bad decision after bad decision earlier this decade. Now the defense is set to hollow out.
The salary cap means that Dallas isn’t big enough for all of the Cowboys. Some of their key starters are likely going to leave so the stars can stay. Dallas has a plethora of impact players set for free agency after this season, including right tackle La’el Collins, linebackers Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith, cornerbacks Byron Jones and Anthony Brown, and safety Jeff Heath. Jones, Heath, and Smith were the top three in snaps for the Cowboys defense in 2018, and it wasn’t particularly close. Jones and Brown were the cornerbacks who made the Cowboys secondary go from burnable to formidable. While Lee’s impact has been replaced by Vander Esch’s, Jaylon Smith is set to depart just as he’s validated the Cowboys investing the 2016 34th overall pick in him. With so much of Dallas’s money seemingly committed to Lawrence, Prescott, Cooper, and Elliott, it’s hard to see how the franchise will keep its other contributors around. The Cowboys had a defensive identity last year, but that could unravel if they hold onto their best players at the expense of future cap flexibility. The Lone Star state could have some lonely stars.