The Dallas Cowboys managed to lock up Ezekiel Elliott with a major extension last Wednesday, ending his holdout and giving the team its full cast of stars heading into week one of the season. As great as that is, the team is far from done with its negotiations with Pro Bowlers Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper looming.
While both players shined in Dallas’ dominant 35-17 victory over the New York Giants, Prescott was simply brilliant, completing 25 of 32 passes for 405 yards and 4 touchdowns. While he might not have been perfect in his placement early on, he nevertheless led the team down the field after the defense allowed Saquon Barkley and the Giants to snatch an early seven-point lead, knotting the score on a 28-yard touchdown pass to Blake Jarwin.
The pass floated on Dak, wobbling through the air to a wide-open Jarwin before the tight end turned and snatched it out of the air behind him and walked in. It may have been Dak’s worst throw on the day and it still went for six. From that moment on, Prescott was lights out.
After punting at mid-field on their opening drive, Dak and company reached the endzone on four straight possessions. This is a stark difference to last year’s team who struggled mightily in the redzone throughout the season. But just how good was Dak Sunday?
By half time, Prescott completed 20 of his 26 pass attempts for 256 yards and 3 touchdowns. He would add another on the team’s opening drive of the second half to give the Cowboys a commanding 35-10 advantage. Really, the only reason bleeding stopped for New York was that on the following drive the sure-handed Amari Cooper dropped a well-placed pass on 3rd and 5 near mid-field. That was essentially where Prescott’s day ended. Sure, he trotted back out there a couple more times, but by that point, Dallas’s only interest was in running out the clock and calling it a day.
So what’s the real significance of Dak’s day, and why should the team react by signing him to a new deal immediately? After all, it’s not often you see teams extend players once the regular season starts, especially quarterbacks. But it’s exactly for that reason Dallas needs to ink Dak right now. Following extensions for Carson Wentz and Jared Goff this offseason, the standard has been set for quarterbacks from the 2016 draft class.
Reports earlier this offseason suggested Prescott’s team had turned down an offer of $30 million per season in search of as much as $40 million annually. While this number understandably baffled many around the country, it’s important to note Wentz got better than $32 million and Goff got $33.5 million. If Dak Prescott is pushing to become the highest-paid quarterback in the league, putting him on equal footing with Russell Wilson’s new $35 million contract, Dallas needs to play this very carefully.
While it’s unlikely any other quarterbacks get extensions done during the season, the argument for Prescott has long-since been his quality production and leadership qualities. He has more wins than any quarterback not named Tom Brady over the past three seasons. He’s never had a losing season and he’s twice gone to the Pro Bowl. His durability should place him ahead of Carson Wentz as is, but if this performance against the Giants is any indicator, Jared Goff’s NFL-record $110 million guaranteed could be overtaken in the coming days.
At the end of last season, the top-end quarterback market paid approximately $25 million per year. Even this scared away many of Prescott’s detractors. However, over the course of that one offseason that figure rose by $10 million. Should the Cowboys allow Prescott to reach unrestricted free agency following this year, presumably having another full season at or near the production we saw from him following the Amari Cooper trade last October, the $35 million the team was unsure of paying him now will bloat closer to that $40 million figure so many balked at.
Such is the nature of quality quarterbacks in the NFL.
While most of Prescott’s critics would rank him somewhere around the 17th best quarterback in the league, the fact remains the same: there are not enough quality quarterbacks to go around. Should you have one in that top half of the league, he’s going to get paid, but more than just talent is evaluated when determining new contracts. At the end of the day, winning still matters, and when your quarterback has produced and won as Dak has, he’s going to be able to push beyond what many would assume he should get.
Between his intangibles, his leadership, and his 34 total wins against 18 loses, including playoffs, he’s clearly been able to push into that top 10 QB discussion in the Cowboys’ mind. We’ve seen this time and time again: when you’re top 10 QB and you come due for a new contract, you get paid. When you get paid, you consistently bump up the price for top-end quarterback money, at times even full-on resetting it as Wilson did with his $35 million extension before the start of training camp.
In Dallas’ case, Jerry Jones said at the start of Cowboys training camp the team was willing to let Dak, Zeke, and Cooper play out the season on a “prove it” year if necessary. In Elliott’s case, it wasn’t, but Dallas could be playing a dangerous game by asking Prescott to prove it.
When a team doesn’t like the desired figure a player is seeking, then tells them to go out and prove they’re worth that kind of money, it’s important to note that the figure doesn’t remain the same if they do end up “proving it.” See DeMarcus Lawrence last season. Rather than extend Lawrence immediately following his 14.5 sack season, the team elected to put the franchise tag on the Pro Bowler, then watched him go out and prove it with another 10.5 sacks and a second straight Pro Bowl appearance. As a result, they saw the $16 million Lawrence had been seeking swell to almost $21 million this season once they finally worked out a new deal for the star defensive end. The same logic applies here with Dak.
Until a new deal is reached, Dak Prescott is playing the 2019 season on a “prove it” basis. If he plays anything like he did Sunday against the Giants the rest of the way, that price tag will undoubtedly balloon beyond anything Goff and Wentz are getting now.