Even though contract talks between Prescott, who wants a four-year deal worth more than $35 million per season, and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who wants Prescott to sign for five years at slightly less than $35 million per, have been slow, deadlines often produce deals. And because of the novel coronavirus pandemic and its impact on the NFL, there is added urgency for Dallas to figure something out.
The NFL Players Association is projecting $3 billion to $3.5 billion in revenue losses if the NFL has to play games without fans in the stands this fall. That type of loss will lead to a 2021 salary cap that will stay at the current $198.2 million or drop below it.
If the Cowboys don’t reach an agreement with Prescott before the deadline, that would put them in the position of having to use a second franchise tag on Prescott next offseason to keep him from hitting free agency — at the steep cost of $37.7 million.
That could force Dallas to cut two key players from its core to get under the salary cap. Wide receiver Amari Cooper and pass rusher Demarcus Lawrence each will have $22 million cap numbers in 2021. Running back Ezekiel Elliott will be at $13.7 million. Guard Zack Martin will be at $15 million. Tackles Tyron Smith and La’el Collins will combine for $24.3 million. Linebacker Jaylon Smith will be at $9.8 million. That’s $106.8 million. Add Prescott on a second franchise tag, and the Cowboys would have $144.5 million tied up in eight players.
That’s simply too much, and something would have to give. To protect themselves against the likelihood the salary cap will stay the same or go down, as opposed to rising around $10 million as it does most seasons, the Cowboys need to get Prescott’s cap number next year to $28 million to $30 million — which is possible considering recent deals for quarterbacks Russell Wilson, Jared Goff and Carson Wentz. Even the mega-extension that the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes agreed to Monday carries just a $24.8 million cap hit in 2021 — something that is achievable because contract extensions can include bonuses that don’t count toward a team’s salary cap, whereas the franchise tag counts completely against the cap.
Ideally, a quarterback will account for no more than 15 percent of a team’s salary cap. Placing a second franchise tag on Prescott would eat up more than 18 percent. Putting the exclusive tag on him, as the Cowboys did this year to prevent other teams from signing him away, would put it over 19 percent.
While the Cowboys’ situation is unusual, they aren’t the only NFL team facing uncertainty because of potential losses stemming from the pandemic. Hardly any teams are getting deals done. Only four members of the 2017 draft class — including Mahomes and Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey — have landed contract extensions. Last year, nine were done by early July.
Don’t be surprised if Prescott is the only one of the 14 franchise-tagged players to reach a long-term extension by the deadline. The Chiefs, for example, have had a tough time reaching an agreement with Chris Jones, who is one of the five best defensive tackles in the NFL, and Jones has said he might sit out the season if he doesn’t get a contract worth $20 million per year. Kansas City certainly would like to keep him, but with Mahomes at $45 million per year, defensive end Frank Clark at $20.8 million, wide receiver Tyreek Hill at $18 million and safety Tyrann Mathieu at $14 million, they might not have room for another big, long-term salary.
Other teams may face similar quandaries if the cap stays the same or goes down, so expect more teams to franchise-tag their top free agents next offseason. The one team that shouldn’t apply to is the Cowboys, who have plenty of incentive to work out a deal with Prescott before next week. If they don’t, it could make for an unpleasant offseason in 2021.