Establishing a quarterback’s value is rarely easy. The most important position in sports is also the most difficult to assess. There’s a reason teams draft someone like Mitchell Trubisky over Patrick Mahomes, or hand Brock Osweiler a contract that includes $37 million guaranteed. Desperation to find a quarterback can cause otherwise shrewd football minds to go haywire.
The same goes for the decision to extend a quarterback—especially as the top QB salaries have soared north of $30 million. Franchises have to weigh about a dozen factors when choosing whether to stick with their guy or move on. At times, emotional ties to players can lead to devastating financial decisions.
Last Wednesday (yes, March 25 was just last week), Liz Loza of Yahoo Sports reported that Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott was close to securing a four-year extension worth $35 million per season. That’s a lot of money no matter how you slice it. Russell Wilson’s 2019 extension gave him an average annual value of $35 million, the largest in the league. Because the optics of deals like this matter, Prescott’s people are chasing a number that’s a smidgen higher to make their client the top-paid player in the NFL.
The idea of Prescott having the league’s highest salary may sound ludicrous, but it isn’t. And though the Cowboys would be in better financial shape had owner Jerry Jones acquiesced last spring and made Prescott the league’s highest-paid player before Wilson signed his contract and Mahomes ascended into the stratosphere, it’s too late now. As Yahoo’s Charles Robinson and others have reported, the gap between Prescott’s camp and Dallas stems more from the length of the deal than its value. The days of haggling over a million bucks here or there are done. The Cowboys are already set to pay Prescott $31.5 million this season if he plays on the franchise tag, with a $37 million cap charge looming in 2021 if he’s tagged again. If Jones hands his QB an extension worth around $35.5 million a year, Prescott would be getting what he’s worth given the landscape of the league.
Before digging into the financial aspects of this decision, let’s talk about Prescott the quarterback. Heading into last fall, I would have considered myself a Dak doubter. His best season to date was his rookie year in 2016, when the Cowboys fielded an all-time great offensive line and leaned heavily on Ezekiel Elliott and the running game. Prescott averaged only 28.7 passes per game that season, the lowest mark in the league for a full-time starting QB. He also ranked second in play-action percentage among qualified quarterbacks at 24.2 percent of his dropbacks. The Cowboys had an infrastructure that insulated their young quarterback and positioned him to thrive. For a fourth-round pick, Prescott was a revelation—he took Tony Romo’s job and helped guide the Cowboys to a 13-3 record and the no. 1 seed in the NFC—but he seemed like he was propped up by the players around him rather than the other way around.
Prescott didn’t do much to change that perception in the next two seasons. As the Cowboys’ line declined due to injury and Elliott’s efficiency suffered, the offense fell off sharply. Even after trading for wide receiver Amari Cooper midway through the 2018 campaign, the Cowboys still finished 26th in passing DVOA, prompting the team to force out offensive coordinator Scott Linehan at season’s end. In an effort to inject some new ideas, Dallas replaced Linehan with QBs coach (and former Prescott teammate) Kellen Moore. What followed was by far the best season of Prescott’s career: He averaged 8.2 yards per attempt, ranked sixth in completion percentage above expectation, and finished second in passing yards (4,902).
From the outside, it may have seemed like Moore’s promotion and principles were the driving factors behind Prescott’s improvement. But watch the tape from 2019: That theory doesn’t bear out. Early in the season, all of the added motions and RPOs looked revolutionary next to the stagnant concepts the Cowboys had used under Linehan. In reality, though, the scheme was just a slightly dressed-up version of what Dallas had used in the past. It was Ogbert the Nerd taking off his glasses and everyone suddenly realizing that he’s handsome. The Cowboys still ran play-action on about 25 percent of Prescott’s dropbacks, even as play-action rates increased leaguewide for the third consecutive season. They continued to use outdated route concepts designed to beat traditional spot-drop zone defenses instead of match-zone schemes. Moore has the makings of a great offensive coordinator (and has the chance to flourish without head coach Jason Garrett around to constrain him), but Prescott’s success last season wasn’t the result of a drastic schematic change.
It wasn’t the product of his supporting cast, either. With Cooper and speedster Michael Gallup, Dallas has a pair of young and talented receivers with complementary strengths. But the Cowboys didn’t utilize those strengths nearly enough last season. The offense’s stop routes and drop-zone beaters were built for big, physical receivers who can outmuscle cornerbacks in close quarters. But that’s not how Dallas’s wideouts are built. Both Gallup and Cooper are only 6-foot-1 and on the lighter side. Gallup is a long strider who excels on vertical routes. Cooper is an excellent route runner who can tie cornerbacks in knots when given space to work. Asking them to line up in spread-out formations and fight off corners in physical press coverage put the entire offense at a disadvantage. And that might have been the most impressive aspect of Prescott’s 2019 performance: Even with a lack of schematic help, he still showed he can excel at every facet of playing quarterback.
Cooper may not be at his best running 15-yard stop routes on the sideline, but Prescott proved he can drive those throws with accuracy from the opposite hash mark. Dallas didn’t use enough concepts that asked Prescott to hit receivers on the move over the middle, but he thrived when it did. When he was asked to push the ball vertically outside the numbers, his excellent deep ball delivered. Prescott also displayed a clear grasp of every minute detail of the offense. His partnership with longtime center Travis Frederick consistently put the Cowboys in the correct protection scheme and play against specific defenses. He processed just as well after the snap: Since Prescott has entered the league, only eight quarterbacks with at least 1,000 pass attempts have a lower interception rate. He threw just 11 interceptions last season despite finishing sixth in total attempts.
Prescott lifted the 2019 Cowboys offense in a way he never had before. He played at an MVP caliber in stretches and is already a borderline top-eight quarterback. And with the way quarterback contracts work, that’s more than enough for a player with considerable leverage to reset the market at the position.
This is a world where Jared Goff is worth $33.5 million per season and $110 million guaranteed, with an exploding salary cap on the horizon. Some may balk at seeing $35 million a year attached to Prescott’s name, but that number means something different than it did last spring when the Seahawks extended Wilson. And it will likely mean something different in 2021. The NFL’s salary cap is directly tied to its revenue, which will skyrocket once the league and its TV partners reach a massive new broadcasting deal. The media kicker in the new CBA could potentially push the cap to 48.5 percent of league revenue if the new TV deal is reached before next season. Based on the 2020 cap of $198.2 million, Wilson’s $35 million AAV accounts for about 17.7 percent of Seattle’s salary cap. If the cap rises by, say, $20 million next year, a $35.5 million AAV for Prescott would account for only 16.3 percent of Dallas’s cap.
The Cowboys will have a more difficult time building a roster around Prescott than they did when he was making less than $1 million a year. As the cap continues to grow, though, any concerns about him hindering their ability to add talent are vastly overstated. Looking at Prescott’s 2019 production and the state of quarterback contracts around the league, paying him around $35 million a year seems like a no-brainer on every level.
His deal would likely be a four- or five-year extension, and it’s tough to find more than a handful of NFL quarterbacks you’d rather have in that time frame. Mahomes and Wilson are a given. Reigning MVP Lamar Jackson is another. Throw Deshaun Watson in there, too. After that, Prescott is probably the guy. Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Ben Roethlisberger will likely be out of the league by the time Prescott’s deal is up. Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan would be 41 and 39, respectively, when a five-year deal ends. Taking last season into account, Prescott has shown more than both Goff and Carson Wentz—both of whom have already cashed in.
The Prescott contract stalemate was drawn out for months, but the resolution shouldn’t be complicated. If Prescott isn’t worth market-setting money, I’m not sure who is.