Jerry Jones is opening up his wallet in a big way to keep the core of the Dallas Cowboys together. Linebacker Jaylon Smith, right tackle La’el Collins, and running back Ezekiel Elliott all got high-priced extensions ahead of the start of the 2019 regular season.
Elliott got $15 million per year and $50 million guaranteed — record-breaking amounts for a running back — and both Smith and Collins are now top-10 in salary at their respective positions. Earlier in the year, DeMarcus Lawrence signed a five-year, $105 million extension that made him the highest paid defensive end in the NFL. Altogether, the Cowboys have dished out over $200 million in guarantees so far in 2019.
And those are probably just the table setters for the main event: New contracts for quarterback Dak Prescott and receiver Amari Cooper that will be the two of the most expensive deals in Cowboys history.
Cooper has all the leverage to push for a contract near $20 million per season, and it’s doubtful Prescott will want a contract that averages less than what his fellow 2016 draftees — Jared Goff ($32 million) and Carson Wentz ($33.5 million) — received.
That’s a lot of dough, specifically on the offensive side of the football.
The Cowboys have offensive linemen Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, and Travis Frederick all locked down with extensions. Those deals — and two more big ones likely on the way — mean the Cowboys aren’t going to have much cap space for the foreseeable future.
If the Cowboys get what they paid for, that won’t be a problem. They’re spending on players they see as a franchise cornerstones at quarterback, running back, wide receiver, and multiple spots on the offensive line. Dallas’ offense is going to look the same, more or less, for years to come.
But the question that bears asking is if these franchise-changing talents have already been in place, why don’t the Cowboys have the hardware to show for it?
The Cowboys’ offense has been stuck in the mud
The decision to go all-in on Prescott came back in November 2016 when Tony Romo was healthy enough to return from a back injury. Instead of handing the reins back to the veteran, the Cowboys stuck with Prescott.
He threw 23 touchdowns and only four interceptions as a rookie, leading the Cowboys to a 13-3 record and the NFC East title. The offense ranked fifth in the NFL in both scoring and yards.
Since then, the Cowboys haven’t been able to recreate that magic. The offense finished 14th in scoring in 2017 and 22nd in 2018. Prescott’s numbers have been mostly stagnant behind an offensive line that hasn’t been as dominant as it was in 2016. The quarterback has been asked to take on a bigger portion of the offensive workload with increased pass attempts, but he hasn’t produced more passing yardage or touchdowns.
Should Dallas really expect different results with essentially the same lineup?
There are certainly caveats. Scott Linehan has been the scapegoat for the Cowboys’ offensive failures for years, with good reason. His painfully rigid and uncreative playcalls made Dallas predictable.
Now he’s gone and 30-year-old former Cowboys quarterback Kellen Moore is the new offensive coordinator. That could lead to an offense that is different enough to succeed, but not so different that it loses its identity.
There was also a clear improvement for the Cowboys’ offense upon the arrival of Amari Cooper. Prior to trading for the receiver midway through the 2018 season, Dallas was averaging 20 points and 319 yards per game. Those numbers climbed to 22 points and 362 yards in the final nine weeks. He was the deep threat the Cowboys desperately needed and Prescott, in particular, was a better player with Cooper in the lineup.
Still, those weren’t special numbers; over half the NFL averaged at least 360 yards per game in 2018. It was good enough to win the NFC East, but the Cowboys were bounced in the Divisional Round of the playoffs with a 30-22 loss to the Rams.
Dallas won’t be back unless the offensive line is elite again
It’s not exactly a mystery how the Cowboys excelled with a rookie quarterback in 2016. The offensive line bullied everyone. Prescott was sacked just 25 times all season and Elliott had room to pile up 1,631 rushing yards. It’s the only time in the last four seasons a running back topped 1,600 yards.
Losing Ronald Leary and Doug Free in free agency caused the unit to take a step back in 2017, but it was still great. But in 2018, the Dallas offensive line was just average, at best. Prescott was sacked 56 times — second most in the NFL — and Elliott wasn’t nearly as effective at punching in touchdowns near the goal line.
In 2016, he scored seven touchdowns on 11 rushing attempts from inside the 5-yard line. That total dropped to just two touchdowns on 10 carries in the same situation in 2018.
Health played a factor in the decline. Tyron Smith missed three games in each of the last three seasons, and Zack Martin dealt with knee issues in 2018. Frederick missed all of last season after he was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome.
All those players are set to return in 2019, and the Cowboys added more depth by picking Connor Williams and Connor McGovern in Day 2 of the last two drafts.
A return to form is certainly possible for the Dallas offensive line. The troubling part for the Cowboys, though, is that it appears as though success on offense is entirely dependent on it.
It’s difficult to imagine an alternate strategy for the Cowboys to take. Allowing any of their marquee offensive players to walk isn’t really a viable option, so tying up considerable resources to keep them is a must. But the Cowboys will likely soon be paying around $70 million per season for those three players on top of several other eight-figure salaries.
The expectation is that Prescott, Elliott, and Cooper will lead the Cowboys to Super Bowls. They’re young, and they’ve been to eight Pro Bowls, collectively. So far though, they haven’t advanced any further than the Divisional Round.
It’s a worthwhile risk for the Cowboys, even if it’s one they have no choice but to make. Dallas has been a winning team with Prescott and Elliott, and the offense cranked things up when Cooper was added to the mix.
But it was the team’s top-10 defense that served as its anchor in each of the last two seasons. The Cowboys aren’t paying exorbitant amounts for the 22nd-best scoring team, and early playoff exits.
Dallas is opening up the pocketbooks because it expects better things to come, especially from its offensive stars. With hundreds of millions of dollars in guaranteed money being invested in the roster, anything less than Super Bowl contention will be a failure.