Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott is approaching the phase in his career when he’ll be expected to elevate his teammates instead of being carried by them.
That’s what happens when a quarterback graduates from his rookie contract, which allows his team to use a drastic discount at the game’s most expensive position (particularly if they are a fourth-rounder like Prescott) to build a stronger roster elsewhere. Once that deal expires, quarterbacks get paid — with the going rate for a top-flight starter moving north of $30 million per year. That leaves far less room for game-breaking receivers, sturdy running backs, proficient blockers or dynamic tight ends. Suddenly the quarterback has to be good enough to win with lesser talent.
And, obviously, only few quarterbacks can actually do that.
Large QB contracts have doomed more than one franchise:
Then again there’s the chance that a QB is worth it … or at least eventually worth it:
And then other guys, you just know. Pay them what you have to pay them:
Which is Prescott most likely to become? Will he become the cap-sucking franchise-sinker (like Flacco) or find his way after a few years (like Wilson)? Or will he become elite (like Brees)?
Smart money is on the first or second option — and that should leave the Cowboys with no other option but to shop Prescott. The NFL has been edging toward this precipice for a while, but the Cowboys have reached the point where they need to test the philosophy that a decent rookie quarterback will always trump a middling and overpaid veteran.
It’s not worth paying to find out if Prescott is the next Wilson or the next Flacco. It’s better to take a chance on a new young quarterback who 1) has a better chance at becoming elite and 2) will be cheap enough that the team can retain or add talent elsewhere. I know, I know — it’s easy for me to say. My job isn’t at stake. But neither is Jerry Jones’. He’ll never fire himself. The owner and general manager has outstanding job security.
So, do the unthinkable and trade away a guy whose rookie hype may have earned him fans but turned out to be just that — hype.
Prescott is an average passer, whose numbers saw a significant jump last season when the Cowboys incorporated Ezekiel Elliott in the passing game and added Amari Cooper, who was a monster for Dallas. But he simply doesn’t stand out making throws to most parts of the field.
For The Win’s Steven Ruiz ranked Prescott 12th among all QBs prior to last season, but thought his development stalled enough to rank the Cowboys’ QB situation 16th heading into next season.
Pro Football Focus ranked Prescott 18th last year, right ahead of Carr and Flacco. He finished 21st in accuracy% but 28th in accuracy+%, which measures how many nearly perfect throws a QB makes. He finished 25th in Big Time Throw%, which takes into account when and where a ball is thrown, generally rewarding deeper throws into tighter windows. Those are the throws that will be a necessity when an offense is built with him as the centerpiece, rather than an accessory.
All of which boils down to this: Prescott isn’t the sort of passer who can be effective without talented players making plays on the other end. He’s not precise enough. He doesn’t anticipate well enough. He’s not that guy — the guy. He did rank sixth in avoiding turnover-worthy plays, according to PFF, and that’s pretty much what you’re getting with Prescott: a safe player who won’t lose you games with bad decisions, but also one who won’t regularly win you games with elite passing.
Maybe that means Prescott can be signed to a more team-friendly deal. Dallas would almost certainly be better off paying Dak and letting Zeke walk, but Jones has already made it clear that Dallas intends to sign both. In that case — and considering Cooper has a nearly $14 million cap hit this year and then will be a free agent — the Cowboys are going to have trouble filling out depth at other positions. Prescott’s surrounding cast will get worse, even if the decline in player quality shows up more on the defensive side of the ball.
Instead of jumping all-in with Prescott, the Cowboys can let someone else make the commitment to a player whose play has been solid but not exceptional. Because on a veteran deal, nothing but exceptional quarterback play will cut it. Dallas could reach out to the Tennessee Titans or Tampa Bay Buccaneers to see if those teams might want to move on from their problematic young quarterbacks. Perhaps one of those teams might be interested in a quarterback swap. The Cowboys could deal Prescott for package that includes Marcus Mariota or Jamies Winston and high picks, including at least one first-rounder (maybe two). In this scenario, the Cowboys have a stop-gap – they’re not giving up on the 2019 season. But they would have (at least) two first-round picks in the 2020 NFL Draft, which could help them acquire one of the big names that are likely to enter the draft next season, like Tua Tagvailoa or Justin Herbert.
If another quarterback isn’t involved and it’s a Prescott-for-picks trade, the Cowboys’ asking price should be something along the lines of a 2020 first-round selection and a conditional 2021 selection, which could be worth another first-round pick depending upon Prescott’s performance.
It’s risky. It’s uncertain. It would be unpopular with some of the fanbase (though others would understand; many fans understand that winning is all about working the cap correctly).
But it’s the right move. In today’s NFL, overpaying a quarterback can be just as bad as not having a good quarterback — maybe worse. Ask the Vikings whether they’d rather have their 2017 roster (with a cheap Case Keenum) or their 2018 roster (with an expensive Kirk Cousins). It wouldn’t even be close.
The current status quo — that if you find a capable quarterback you pay him regardless of whether he can actually shoulder an offense — isn’t working. The Cowboys should challenge it. For the right deal, they should trade Prescott and find another young quarterback who can bolster the team’s Super Bowl hopes.