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Dak Prescott’s contract, explained: Cowboys weigh doubling down on franchise tag vs. a long-term deal

The clock is ticking for the Cowboys again to sign quarterback Dak Prescott. The two-week window to apply to the franchise tag on the pending NFL free agent has opened in 2021, with March 9 as the deadline for Dallas to do so, if it so chooses.

Prescott played under the exclusive tag last season and earned $31.4 million guaranteed. This year, should the Cowboys tag him again, that number would jump up by 20 percent to $37.7 million.

The Cowboys and Prescott would prefer to agree on a long-term deal, however, to both have him under contract beyond one more season and lock up bigger overall guaranteed money in relation to the top of the QB market.

Here’s a look at how Dallas is positioned to go down either avenue with Prescott’s contract:

MORE: Top 50 NFL free agents for 2021, best players by position

What is the Cowboys’ salary-cap situation for signing Dak Prescott?

The NFL-wide salary cap will have a floor of $180 million for teams, with a ceiling that isn’t much higher than that. For now, the Cowboys are in pretty good shape, ranked 12th in the league at around $19 million under the cap.

That said, they cannot afford the cap hit tied to tagging Prescott at $37.7 million without restructuring contracts and releasing of players from their deals.

Their most logical source of savings would be to designate linebacker Jaylon Smith as a June 1 cut after a shaky season. That would come with $7.2 million in additional relief. The Cowboys can do that with two players, which also should make them think about moving on from aging left tackle Tyron Smith. They could recoup another $10.5 million there.

That would get Dallas to about $36.7 million under the cap in two moves, meaning they can make the tag work on Prescott by cutting one more player. If they would like to keep Tyron Smith and still clear enough cap space, then they can cut cornerback Anthony Brown, punter Chris Jones, defensive end Randy Gregory, tight end Blake Jarwin and a few bottom-roster players to go with Jaylon Smith.

The Cowboys would be forced into some tough decisions with other veterans by looking to tag Prescott and also will have zero cap space to do anything else in free agency, with either their own or outside players.

What a second franchise tag would mean for Dak Prescott

From Prescott’s perspective, a second consecutive tag isn’t too bad. That would mean he has earned $69.1 million in guaranteed money in two years, and the Cowboys still would have showed faith in him as an elite, durable QB despite an ankle injury limiting his 2020 season to five games.

This would be the Kirk Cousins scenario from Washington at work again. Cousins was tagged in consecutive offseasons as a non-exclusive franchise player, making $20 million guaranteed in 2016 and bumping up 20 percent to $24 million guaranteed in 2017. A third tag from Washington would have increased his value by 44 percent to $34.6 million in 2018, making it certain he would hit free agency.

Cousins ended up getting signed by the Vikings for three years at $84 million, all guaranteed. From ’16 until being extended in ’20, Cousins got the equivalent of a five-year deal worth $128 million, all guaranteed.

Cousins “bet on himself” and hit the jackpot. Prescott might be wary of trying to do the same coming off his ankle surgery, but before the fluke of getting hurt against the Giants, he did start and finish every game healthy for four and a quarter seasons since entering the league as a fourth-round draft pick in 2016.

If Prescott gets tagged again in 2021, then his tag value would skyrocket to $54.4 million in 2022, well above the top of the QB market. That would force either the Cowboys or another team to give him a high-end long-term deal, assuming he puts up a durable and productive comeback season.

MORE: The NFL’s highest-paid players for 2020

What should Dak Prescott’s contract look like with the Cowboys?

Reports are Prescott wants a shorter deal, so think more in the Deshaun Watson four-year range (at $156 million) than the Patrick Mahomes 10-year range (at $450 million). Both of those 2017 first-round QBs signed their mega deals late last summer right before the 2020 season.

Mahomes ended up averaging $45 million per season, getting $63 million guaranteed at signing with more than $141.5 million total guaranteed. Watson ended up averaging $39 million a season, with $73 million guaranteed at signing with $110.7 million total guaranteed.

Prescott already go $31.4 million guaranteed over one year, so in essence, a four-year deal would serve as an extension. Because of that being significantly lower as an average annual salary vs. the best on the market, don’t be surprised if Prescott is bumped to an average of $40 million per season, or $160 million total over four years.

That would translate into five years, $191.4 million when including 2020, making the true average $38.3 million, which seems right as it’s a little more than what Prescott would get on the tag in 2021.

Watson’s contract gives the Cowboys a good way to structure Prescott’s. Around $75 million guaranteed at signing and $115 million total guaranteed would make a lot of sense in relation to $160 million overall value.

The Texans, with Watson’s extension, reduced his initial cap hit to $9.8 million in 2020 and $15.9 in million in 2021, should he stay with the team. The contract doesn’t jumps to $40 million-plus against the cap until 2022 and 2023. The Cowboys can create similar short-term flexibility with their cap and stay out of any kind of bind.

Bottom line, it wouldn’t be the worst thing for the Cowboys to tag Prescott again, but after doing it once as the easiest solution in 2020, they would be much better off finally hammering out the long-term contract before March 9. Otherwise, they might come dangerously close to letting Prescott hit the open market in NFL free agency.

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