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The Cowboys’ lack of foresight is costing them money and talent

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Jerry Jones has been saying for years that Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper are long-term pieces to build around. So he should’ve paid them much sooner.

Dallas Cowboys v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The 2020 offseason hasn’t gone well for the Dallas Cowboys so far.

While the team did it what it could to retain quarterback Dak Prescott (at least through the 2020 season) and receiver Amari Cooper, it wasn’t cheap to do so. And along the way, Dallas lost both cornerback Byron Jones and defensive end Robert Quinn in free agency.

The Cowboys are losing important pieces and overpaying the ones they’ve managed to keep. It’s a problem that Dallas should’ve seen coming from a mile away.

A Prescott extensions should’ve happened a long time ago

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has been calling Prescott his franchise quarterback since 2016. A gigantic contract inevitably comes with that distinction. Team executives have said all along that they’re ready for Prescott’s payday.

“We certainly know that’s going to happen,” Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said in May 2018, via The Dallas Morning News. “We’ve got that planned in our budgeting for the salary cap. And I just want Dak to go out there and be the MVP this year of the NFL, that’s what I want. And we’ll deal with that.”

If Dallas needed Prescott to prove himself worthy of that kind of contract, he’s done that on the field. He’s a two-time Pro Bowler and had his best season in 2019, finishing with 4,902 yards, 30 touchdowns, and a 99.7 passer rating.

In May 2019, Jerry Jones emphatically told Michael Irvin “I am confident we will get this done,” amidst reports that the deal was broaching the $30 million per year range. Yet, the Cowboys — now four years removed from drafting Prescott — haven’t been able to lock down the quarterback to a long-term deal.

Instead, Prescott was given the exclusive franchise tag, guaranteeing him around (an estimated) $31.5 million for the 2020 season. But if the Cowboys had signed Prescott earlier, they undoubtedly would’ve saved money.

Consider the four-year, $128 million extension the Eagles gave Carson Wentz in June 2019. While it averages a hefty $32 million per year, it’s a relatively affordable deal now. Five players (Russell Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, Jared Goff, and Kirk Cousins) all average more per year. More quarterbacks, including Prescott, will likely pass Wentz too as the salary cap soars under the new collective bargaining agreement.

Even it the cost to keep Wentz was high at the time, the Eagles have their quarterback secured through the 2024 season. Meanwhile, the Cowboys are headed down a dangerous path.

Instead of giving Prescott a deal comparable to Wentz — a fair assumption considering both were drafted in 2016 and had relatively similar production in their first three seasons — the Cowboys have ceded all the leverage to the young passer. Replacing him is impractical and Dallas is in jeopardy of following the same path that caused Washington to lose Kirk Cousins. The Cowboys’ only option is to pay Prescott sooner rather than later.

And that means he can demand a contract that soars past Wilson’s NFL-leading $35 million average. Dallas only has until July 15 to sign Prescott to a long-term deal, so there’s not much reason for the quarterback to budge from record-breaking figures in the next few months.

If the Cowboys are unwilling to pay that number, Prescott could play under the tag and force Dallas into a bad spot in 2021. The team would have to choose between letting him walk or another franchise tag that would likely cost around $38 million. The Cowboys could wait until next spring to pay Prescott, but — barring injury or abrupt regression — that’ll only bring the price higher.

It’s always better to pay a quarterback sooner rather than later. The Cowboys are getting burned for dragging their feet.

Amari Cooper’s extension also took too long

In October 2018, the Cowboys gave up a first-round pick to acquire Cooper in a trade from the Raiders. They didn’t do it for a temporary boost; the Cowboys believed he could be a core piece in Dallas for the foreseeable future.

The priority was always to keep Cooper. No team wants to give up a first-rounder for a player and only get 1.5 seasons in return. Plus, his tremendous production — 1,914 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns in 25 games — made an extension a must.

The Cowboys finally got it done with a five-year, $100 million deal just a couple days before Cooper was set to become a free agent. That’s a much better alternative to losing the receiver but, like Prescott, the Cowboys waited longer than necessary.

When Cooper was traded to the Cowboys, Odell Beckham Jr. was the highest-paid receiver in the NFL at $18 million per year. But Dallas didn’t get a deal done with Cooper in the 2019 offseason and the prices for a top receiver shot up. Michael Thomas signed a deal that averaged $19.25 million in July 2019 and two months later, Julio Jones pushed the number even higher with a contract that pays $22 million per year.

The Cowboys were actually a bit lucky to get a deal with Cooper that averaged $20 million. Washington reportedly made a richer offer to Cooper, but the receiver accepted less to stay in Dallas.

Still, it’s hard to imagine the Cowboys wouldn’t have been able to secure Cooper with a contract closer to Beckham’s had they acted much sooner.

The Cowboys’ lackadaisical pace allowed key players to leave

Even after tagging Prescott and giving Cooper a mammoth extension, the Cowboys still entered free agency with about $25 million in cap space, according to Over The Cap.

Perhaps that room could’ve been used to retain Byron Jones, a cornerback who received $16.5 million per year from the Dolphins. Or Robert Quinn, the only player with more than five sacks for the Cowboys in 2019, who left to join the Bears.

If Dallas signed Prescott and Cooper earlier, it likely would’ve had more space and time to work on keeping those players. At the very least, the Cowboys would’ve had the franchise tag available to keep at least one.

For the most part, free agency for the Cowboys has been about keeping a few key players on the roster. In addition to a new deal for Cooper, the team also kept tight end Blake Jarwin, linebacker Sean Lee, and safety Darian Thompson. They also signed 32-year-old defensive tackle Gerald McCoy.

But ultimately, the Cowboys’ 2020 offseason has been a half-successful attempt to plug holes in a dam. It didn’t have to be this way.

Jerry Jones has been very clear about which players on the team he sees as long-term fixtures who he intends to keep in Dallas. He wasted no time securing Ezekiel Elliott to a six-year, $90 million deal when the running back held out from training camp in 2019. That probably shouldn’t have been the top priority, but Dallas had the room at the time to lock down Elliott, Prescott, and Cooper. But for some reason, the team is still trying to get the job done.

If Jones actually opened the purse strings and hammered out extensions in a timely fashion, the Cowboys would be in much better shape right now.