The $30 Million Question: What is Dak Prescott Worth?
30 million dollars per year. Like it or not that is the current market price for franchise quarterbacks in the NFL, and what many expect Dak Prescott to be making by the beginning of the 2019 NFL season. The prospect of paying Prescott this salary is the most divisive topic since the infamous days of the “is Tony Romo actually good?” debates.
The short answer to this question is that it doesn’t matter what you or I think. This deal is going to get done one way or another. Dak is clearly Jerry and Stephen Jones’s “guy” and someone who they strongly believe can compete for Super Bowls. They are going to do their best to get a deal done with him for the long-term and that will involve paying him more than some fans are comfortable with.
However, Stephen has made it abundantly clear that he wants to sign Prescott to a team-friendly deal stating, “If they [quarterbacks] take up too much cap space, it can hurt their chances of winning.” Stephen has made it clear that while he thinks Dak is a franchise quarterback, he is not quite in the elite category. Referring to recent extensions given to Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson, “You’re talking about two guys there… that have won Super Bowls, that have had success year-in and year-out, taking their teams to the playoffs.” This could be interpreted as a shot at Prescott’s current resume as an NFL quarterback or, an indicator that the front office is not ready to follow the league wide trend of giving your impending free agent quarterback a top of the market contract.
Stephen’s comments about taking up too much cap space are particularly interesting, given the many expiring contracts the Cowboys are juggling. Amari Cooper and Byron Jones will join Dak as free agents in 2020, Ezekiel Elliott will be a free agent in 2021, and Jaylon Smith will be a restricted free agent in 2020.
Most of the proponents for giving Prescott his pay day are centered around the current quarterback market. The quarterback market has been reset almost every season as a perceived franchise quarterback was given an extension or signed in free agency. Most recently the Seahawks signed Russell Wilson to a 4 year $140 million extension and the Philadelphia Eagles and Carson Wentz’s agreed to a 4 year $128 million extension. The NFL’s current top 11 quarterbacks in terms of annual salary can be seen below:
The Wentz extension is exactly what I think the Cowboys were hoping to ink with Dak. Which, now creates an interesting debate over who will be paid more. Wentz and Prescott have been linked throughout their careers: same draft class, same division, and both the faces of rival franchises. Cowboys and Eagles fans will debate which quarterback is better until they’re blue in the face but, I will try to only focus on how it pertains to their contracts.
As you can see the average salary has gone up every year that a quarterback signed an extension, with the exception of Drew Brees, Nick Foles (who’s contract this offseason with Jacksonville is $22 million per year, but his is a unique case), and now Carson Wentz. The argument is pretty simple: Dak Prescott sits next in line to benefit from this trend. He will be paid like a top-5 quarterback in the area of $30 million per year, whether you think that reflects his true value or not. It is what happened when Carson Wentz, Matthew Stafford, Jimmy Garoppolo, and Kirk Cousins were on the market and it is what will happen for Dak.
As Stephen Jones and many fans have indicated, this handicaps your team in other areas and is not a good team building strategy. The key is balancing the fair market value of a free agent quarterback and Prescott’s value as a quarterback to the Cowboys. Whatever your opinion on him, it’s hard to argue from a numbers and wins standpoint that Dak hasn’t had a better career than guys like Derek Carr, Jimmy Garoppolo, and Kirk Cousins. While he hasn’t come close to matching Stafford’s passing numbers. In three years in the league Prescott has a better playoff record than Stafford after 10 years, in one less playoff appearance. This is automatically puts him in the $28+ million dollar range, set by Kirk Cousins last year, but somewhere below the $33.5 million of Aaron Rodgers. That is why $30 million per year has become the “sweet” spot most analysts have Todd France of CAA, Prescott’s agent, shooting for and why Cowboys fans who think $20 million per year is a fair price for Prescott are dreaming. While there are notable quarterbacks like Cam Newton and Phillip Rivers in the $20 million per year price range, they are all on the last year of extensions signed in 2015 and are getting ready themselves to cash in like Prescott.
This is most likely how the Eagles came to the $32 million per year for Carson Wentz. He is clearly young, still improving, and hopefully will avoid injuries moving forward. That is how the Eagles hit the sweet spot between Kirk Cousins and Rodgers. I believe this is close to the deal Prescott and the Cowboys will end up agreeing on. As mentioned above, the quarterback market tends to reset every offseason, and the trend won’t stop with Dak . Between 2020 and 2021 quarterbacks like Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Marcus Mariota, Jared Goff, and Cam Newton will be free agents and in 2022 guys like Pat Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, and Mitch Trubisky.
What does this mean for the Cowboys? If you gave Dak Prescott $30 million per year right now, although he would be tied for the fifth highest paid quarterback annually for the 2019 season, that ranking would quickly drop. When Jimmy Garoppolo signed his contract with the 49ers he had the highest annual salary in NFL history. Since then he has dropped to sixth in annual salary. In the two years since Matt Stafford became the highest paid NFL quarterback, he has dropped to number seven. The sooner the Cowboys extend Prescott, the quicker they can see his contract decrease in value relative to the cap and the rest of the market.
For some the “market trend” argument laid out above is still just not convincing enough. It makes sense. Just because the salary cap and the value of each new contract is increasing, doesn’t mean a general manager has to let it dictate every future contract. How a player performs on the field is the ultimate deciding factor and we have two ways to measure that impact: statistics and film study.
Obviously context matters for statistics but, with a large sample size it can still be a nice tool for player comparisons. Dak has three years of play for us to evaluate before his first extension so, we will compare his stats to only the three prior years of some other quarterbacks before they receiver their own pay raises. This is assuming that Dak’s extension will be completed some time over the summer before the start of the 2019 season.
Dak Prescott (2016-2018):
Carson Wentz (2016-2018):
Russell Wilson (2016-2018)
Kirk Cousins (2015-2017):
Aaron Rodgers (2014-2017):
Matt Ryan (2015-2017):
What sticks out immediately is that Dak Prescott has the best record of any quarterback in the three years prior to his extension. Whether you’re someone that considers wins a quarterback or team stat, that is impressive in its own right considering one of those years was his rookie season when he wasn’t expected to start. And his sophomore slump with his backfield mate Ezekiel Elliott missing 6 games due to suspension. It is fair to say that the Cowboys roster is more talented than some of these other quarterbacks (poor Russ has to run for his life every play and the Packers refuse to give Rodgers any weapons outside of Davante Adams), and that leads to wins. But, comparing those last two columns for each quarterback tells a different story. Dak’s fourth quarter comebacks and game winning drives are higher than any other quarterback, meaning Dak is the reason for the Cowboys winning their fair share of games, not just a product of the talent around him.
Where Dak falls short compared to these others is in raw passing numbers. Including rushing yards and touchdowns helps boost his total stats but, this is the one area critics could point to as why the Cowboys shouldn’t give him big time quarterback money.
Comparing Wentz and Prescott statistically is the most apt, as they entered the league at the same time and Wentz set the market most recently. To start, I think the Eagles and Cowboys rosters are very similar from a talent perspective. Zac Ertz and Amari Cooper are excellent number one targets, both have exceptional talent on the offensive line, and both have talented defenses. The Eagles were talented enough to win a Super Bowl recently, while the Cowboys made a decent push in the playoffs last year.
Where I think Wentz has the clear advantage is in the play calling and coaching staff. Give me Doug Pederson, Frank Reich (when he was there), and Mike Groh every day of the week over Jason Garrett, recently fired Scott Linehan, and the unproven Kellen Moore. Either way, each team is close enough talent wise to make a direct statistical comparison reasonable.
Prescott clearly has the lead in win percentage and durability, as Wentz has fought through a torn ACL in 2017 and a bad back in 2018. For those saying, “but when Wentz is on the field, he’s clearly better”, I would agree, but availability is your best ability, especially for a franchise quarterback. If you’re going to give invest greatly in a player, you want them to be out on the field playing.
Where Wentz overshadows Prescott is in his stellar last two years, playing at an MVP level. Although Wentz having similar stats in less games leads you to believe that he would be superior on a per game basis, the opposite holds true. Prescott edges out Wentz in touchdowns per game, interceptions per game, completion percentage, and passer rating. Wentz only beats Prescott in passing yards per game and sacks per game.
This is why the recent deal for Wentz makes Dak’s contract all the more interesting. While I think most agree that Wentz has the higher upside as a passer, Dak has comparable stats, wins more, and is more durable. This will be what Dak’s agents build their argument to the Jones’s around, in hopes of securing slightly north of $32 million per year, or perhaps more in practical guaranteed money.
Now the final piece of the puzzle is how the Prescott contract will fit in with the rest of the salary cap. The most notable contracts expiring for the Cowboys alongside Prescott are number one receiver Amari Cooper, workhorse running back Ezekiel Elliott, cornerback Byron Jones, linebacker Jaylon Smith, and right tackle La’el Collins.
Luckily for the Cowboys overthecap.com has them currently projected to have the third most cap space of any team in 2020 at $74.897 million. Considering Demarcus Lawrence’s new contract and having their three all-pro offensive linemen under contract, the Cowboys are in a good position to secure their young core for the immediate future.
Personally, I would let Elliott walk and draft his replacement. Running backs have a short shelf life in the NFL, especially when used as much as Elliott, and are relatively easy to replace in the draft (especially with Will McClay making the picks). In addition, while I think Elliott is a good person, his string of questionable off field decisions combined with Roger Goodell’s disdain for Jerry Jones increases the risk of him missing games due to suspension. But, Elliott is clearly one of Jerry’s “guys”, and gives him visions of the 1990’s Cowboy dynasties powered by Emmitt Smith. The current top three running back yearly salaries are $14.375, $13.125, and $13 million for Todd Gurley, Le’veon Bell, and David Johnson respectively. Other top paid running backs hover in the $8 million per year average.
Given Elliott’s durability and top rushing numbers over the years, he will likely reset the market with a yearly average in the $14.5+ million range. Most would agree this is a terrible use of cap space as running back is not a premiere position, and this will be a tough number to come to terms with for some Cowboys fans.
Amari Cooper’s contract is the most fascinating one to me. Prescott clearly had a connection with Cooper last year and greatly improved after the Cowboys traded for him. Odell Beckham Jr. currently has the largest wide receiver contract at $18 million per year and almost $41 million in guarantees. The rest of the top seven are all between $16 and $16.7 million with wide ranges of total guarantees. The Cowboys are reportedly willing to pay Cooper in the $16 million range, but Cooper’s camp has requested a reportedly “outrageous” salary. Cooper is still extremely young at just 24 years old, and clearly found new life in Dallas after fading out in Oakland. Comparing Cooper to Beckham Jr., it’s hard to justify making him the new highest paid wide receiver in the league. Instead I think somewhere between $16.5 and $17 million per year with guarantees in the $40+ million range should get the deal done. The high guarantees are a lower end risk for Cooper who has only missed two games in is career and lacks the “diva” or off-field issues typically associated with wide receivers.
While La’el Collins struggled last year, he is still a solid starting right tackle in a league that severely lacks in quality offensive tackle play. Trent Brown recently became the highest paid left tackle in the NFL and Collins will be looking to cash in himself. Given the drafting of Connor McGovern in the third round this past year, signs point to the Cowboys letting Collins walk, moving Connor Williams to the outside, and letting McGovern hold down the left guard spot.
Jaylon Smith will be a restricted free agent in 2020, but the Cowboys are reportedly already in early discussions with his camp. Smith is the new leader and heart of a rising Cowboys defense, and forms a formidable duo with Leighton Vander Esch. Luckily for the Cowboys, it has been rumoured that Smith is willing to take a discount for the team that gambled on him with the 34th overall pick following his gruesome leg injury during his final game at Notre Dame. This offseason CJ Mosely became the highest paid off-ball linebacker with a $17 million per year, $43 million guaranteed contract. At second and third are Kwon Alexander and Luke Kuechly at $13.5 and $12.36 million per year respectively. Assuming Smith does take a slight discount, we can estimate his contract in the $13 to $14 million per year range.
Byron Jones is the final big contract the Cowboys need to work through and is the second most intriguing behind Amari Cooper’s. The cornerback market has not seen much fluctuation in recent years, with the top paid corners remaining relatively constant since 2016. In addition, Kris Richard is one of the best defensive coaches in football and has a history of developing corners. The Cowboys could let Jones walk, trusting in Richard to develop Chidobe Awuzie, Michael Jackson Jr., and future draft picks. If they decide to retain his services, Byron Jones will likely demand between $14 and $15 million per year on the open market.
The table above summarizes the likely yearly cap hit that would be required for each player. The first thing you’ll notice is that this totals to $92.5 million, which is higher than the Cowboys approximately $75 million in projected cap space. That number can increase slightly with contracts being reworked and cutting players like Tyrone Crawford who is owed $9 million, but the Cowboys will still need to make some tough decisions. In addition those yearly averages are “new money averages” that can be spread out over additional years if players are extended early, in the case of Prescott, Cooper, Elliott, and Smith.
Personally, I would let Jones and Elliott walk, and trust in Will McClay and Kris Richard to find replacements. If not, hopefully the struggles of David Johnson and Todd Gurley to stay healthy after big contracts will drive Elliott’s price down. However, I think Jerry Jones will have flashbacks of the 90’s triplets in his head and focus on extending Prescott, Elliott, and Cooper above all else. Leighton Vander Esch played outstanding as a rookie and can cover the loss of Smith if need be. I do think the Cowboys will try and work some cap magic with restructuring contracts or spacing out hits on new contracts to retain Smith though. Prescott and Jaylon Smith’s cap hits can be spread out if the deal is finished before this season starts, as it can be added to the last years of their rookie deals. This leaves La’el Collins and Byron Jones as the chief losses, with other losses being Tyrone Crawford, Maliek Collins, and others hitting the free agent market.
To conclude, the current quarterback market and statistics make it difficult to argue against Prescott earning his bid pay day. Dak is a young, durable quarterback who is still improving and wins football games at a high rate. While he doesn’t have the upside of an upper tier quarterback, Prescott is more than a plateau quarterback who can play at a high level when given a strong supporting cast. Prescott will likely get a deal similar to Carson Wentz’s in average yearly salary, but higher in total guaranteed money. Cooper and Elliott are likely next in the pecking order, but will leave the Cowboys with difficult decisions regarding Byron Jones and Jaylon Smith.