Jerry Jones has a problem on his hand. The blossoming stars of his offense are about to go from the league’s biggest bargains to some of the game’s highest-paid players.
Quarterback Dak Prescott and wide receiver Amari Cooper are each entering the final years of their rookie contracts. Running back Ezekiel Elliott’s deal realistically won’t expire until after the 2020 season, but he’s threatening to skip the entire 2019 campaign if he doesn’t get a major pay raise after leading the league in rushing yards in two of his first three seasons.
Meeting each of these young headliner’s demands would create some salary cap headaches both this season and for years to come that could doom the Cowboys to mediocrity. Locking in Prescott, Cooper, and Elliott would mean sacrificing depth elsewhere and potentially allowing other rising talents like Byron Jones, Jaylon Smith, and Chidobe Awuzie to leave once their relatively low-cost contracts expire.
Jones appears ready to meet some of those demands by readying “top five” contracts to his ”Big 3.” The question is whether being paid near the top of the salary table at each player’s position will be enough for the three primary pieces of the Cowboys’ offensive empire.
So what should Dallas’ owner/general manager/low-priority deity do? The SB Nation NFL team weighs in with three possible options.
Option No. 1: Pay them all quickly
In order: Dak, Zeke, Amari.
Jones’ biggest fear should be what his team looks like with a replacement-level quarterback. From 2013 to 2015, the Cowboys went 1-13 when Tony Romo wasn’t in the lineup. Then Prescott burst on to the scene and has gone 32-16 in his three seasons at the helm. There are several mitigating factors behind those records — many of those Romo-free games were relatively meaningless for a team without postseason aspirations — but the young quarterback’s value in Dallas makes his worthy of a $30 million(ish) salary.
The Cowboys apparently agreed, offering their QB a deal offering $30m annually. While Prescott’s may or may not have asked for a $40 million salary, it seems likely he’d be asking for a deal in the Russell Wilson/Aaron Rodgers stratosphere at between $33.5 and $35 million per year.
Jones was so concerned about life without Elliott that he was willing to take on NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in an extended bureaucratic battle just to keep his star tailback on the field in 2017 (it didn’t work).
Elliott led the league in rushing yards in 2016 and 2018 and would have made it three straight seasons had he not served that six-game suspension his second year. He also played an elevated role in the passing attack last season; his 77 receptions more than doubled his career total. His 868 carries are the most in the league since he’s been a pro, and it’s easy to understand why he’d want a market-resetting contract locked in before he puts his body on the line for a potential 400-touch season this fall.
Then there’s Cooper, who required a first-round pick to buy his freedom from Oakland and then immediately snapped back to Pro Bowl form upon his arrival in Texas. After averaging 183 passing yards per game in Dallas’ 3-4 start to the season, the Cowboys put up 251 per game in their 7-2 finish with Cooper. Over a full season, Cooper’s Dallas stats scale up to a 94-catch, 1,289-yard, 11-touchdown campaign.
All of these pieces are vital to the Cowboys’ success, and with an estimated $67 million in cap space next spring, Jones can afford all three — though he’ll have to sacrifice to get there. Cameron Fleming and Tyrone Crawford would be likely cap casualties, for starters. For an owner looking to reclaim the glory days of the Aikman-Irvin-Smith triumvirate, that seems like the kind of tradeoff Jones should be willing to make. — Christian D’Andrea
Option No. 2: Pay Prescott and Elliott now, wait on Cooper
At 24 years old, Elliott is entering the prime years of his career. He wants a huge contract now, which makes sense considering the value of a running back has dropped off significantly, especially as a player ages. Even as the position has become less important in the NFL, Elliott is still worth the money.
Last season, he led the league in attempts, rushing yards, and yards per game, and finished second with 2,001 all-purpose yards. A big chunk of the Dallas offense relies on Elliott being able to pound through defenders and establish the running game.
Elliott’s already said he won’t be play without a new deal. Although the Cowboys have Alfred Morris and Darius Jackson, Elliott’s absence leaves a huge hole in their offense. Without him, it becomes harder for Prescott to find open receivers, with defenses more willingly to drop defenders into coverage. Elliott also can catch coming out of the backfield, only adding to his value.
In the six games he missed in 2017, Dallas went 3-3, failing to score in the double digits in all three losses. The Cowboys finished 9-7 that season and just missed out on the playoffs.
The other candidate to get paid is Prescott. He’s been the leader under center for the past three years. Last season was a good year for him as he threw for a career-high 3,885 yards and earned his first playoff win.
Dallas doesn’t have a plan for Prescott’s successor if it did let him hit free agency after the season. Only one of his backups, Cooper Rush, has even attempted an NFL pass — he’s 1 of 3 for two yards in his career.
There’s probably not an immediate solution in the 2020 draft, either. The Cowboys should be a playoff-caliber team, so they won’t be in the hunt for an early pick in the draft. That means they’d miss out on some of the top quarterbacks unless they made a huge (and costly) trade. They could draft someone in the later rounds, but that quarterback likely wouldn’t be ready to start right away. Prescott, who was a fourth-round pick, was an exception to this. Plus, there is the high possibility that the quarterback Dallas drafted wouldn’t be better than Prescott.
The Cowboys are ready to compete right now, and they need to keep their key players around — and happy — to do that. Signing the duo of Elliott and Prescott would help shore up their two core offensive players.
On the other hand, the Cowboys can afford to wait on Cooper. Yes, Cooper showed he was a Pro Bowl receiver in the weeks he played for Dallas, but he struggled with consistency in his first few years in Oakland. Cooper needs to prove he can continue to keep up the production. The Cowboys could let Cooper play out his final year and then gauge his value at the end of the season.
Of the three, Cooper is the most replaceable — Elliott is a generational talent and Prescott is a franchise quarterback. At receiver, Michael Gallup had a promising rookie season and is on a cheap deal at the moment. Randall Cobb can be useful in a slot role. If the Cowboys want to look elsewhere, they have the chance to go after A.J. Green or DeVante Parker, whose contracts expire next offseason. There is also the draft, which could give Prescott some more targets. — Vijay Vemu
Option No. 3: Pay Prescott and Cooper now, wait on Elliott
The Cowboys don’t actually have to pay Elliott now, even though he’s currently holding out. Dallas exercised Elliott’s fifth-year option, which means he’s already under contract for the 2020 season. His leverage in this situation is practically zero.
The contracts for Prescott and Cooper do expire after this season, though, creating more urgency to get them done.
In the nine games that they played together, Prescott and Cooper showed that they could be a formidable duo through the air. Cooper averaged 80.6 yards per game in Dallas, which was a big jump from his 46.7 yards per game he averaged with the Raiders earlier in 2018. Prescott also saw a statistical leap with the arrival of Cooper. He had an adjusted yards per attempt mark of 8.03 in nine games with Cooper — that would’ve ranked 10th in the NFL if it lasted for the entire 2018 season.
Prescott has proven that he can be the Cowboys’ quarterback of the future. He’s durable, mobile, a better downfield passer than he’s given credit for, and he wins games. Now he’s finally found a stud receiver he can grow with. The Cowboys traded their 2019 first-round pick to Oakland to acquire Cooper and it worked out — letting him walk after that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
Dallas is projected to have enough cap space next offseason that it can structure the Prescott and Cooper deals in ways that don’t hamper their cap space for future years. It’s honestly enough to pay all three, but the Cowboys simply don’t have to pay Elliott right now. They can wait him out, see how he plays in 2019 and if he stays out of trouble, and then assess the situation after the season. — Charles McDonald