The true nightmare scenario for the Cowboys' offseason, the one in which, somehow, Jerry Jones botches the whole thing and forces Cowboys fans to watch as Dak Prescott plays for someone else in 2020, is off the table. As absolutely everyone expected, the Cowboys placed the franchise tag on Prescott on Monday. That means they retain his exclusive rights and will have to pay him the average of the top five quarterback salaries in the NFL — $26.8 million.
It's not a permanent fix. The Cowboys still need to sign Prescott to a long-term contract, but that's an issue for later. The next problem the management team needs to solve is almost as big.
(Note: The next section of this post was written Monday evening. Late Monday night, Amari Cooper agreed with the Cowboys on a five-year, $100 million contract extension, according to multiple reports.)
When the Cowboys traded a first-round draft pick for then-Raiders wide receiver Amari Cooper at the 2018 trade deadline, the idea was that they'd retain his services for more than the year and a half that remained on his rookie contract. Now, because they've been forced to use their only franchise tag on Prescott, Cooper is an unrestricted free agent.
It's not great for the Cowboys, but it's not the end of the world, either. Cooper is a Pro Bowler and a true No. 1 receiver. There's some doubt, however, about whether he's a top-five player at his position, deserving of the $20 million per year or so that Cooper wants from a long-term contract. As a Cowboy, Cooper has struggled to match his stellar performance at home outside the friendly confines of AT&T Stadium and has struggled enough with injuries to make one wonder about his durability.
The Cowboys' 2020 offense will be better if the team keeps Cooper in the fold. Michael Gallup is a talented, improving wideout, but he fits the mold of a deep threat No. 2 receiver, not an all-purpose No. 1. If Cooper walks, the Cowboys will have options in April's NFL draft, too.
If the Cowboys take the field next year without Cooper or a reasonable facsimile, expect the offense to look a lot like it did during the first half of the 2018 season. Prescott, without a go-to receiver, will have to be almost perfect for the team to win games.
Cooper isn't the Cowboys' only significant contributor to hit the free-agent block Monday. Cornerback Byron Jones and defensive end Robert Quinn are both out of contract and can expect to get paid after strong 2019 campaigns. The line from management is going to be that the Cowboys couldn't possibly sign two, or three, out of Cooper, Jones and Quinn, thanks to the salary cap. (Jones reportedly agreed to a five-year, $57 million guaranteed contract with the Miami Dolphins on Monday night. On Tuesday, Quinn and the Chicago Bears reportedly agreed to terms on a five-year, $70 million deal with $30 million guaranteed.)
Believe that the cap is real if you like. Kids believe in Santa Claus, too.
Basically my premise is this: in the last decade there are either zero or nearly zero cases of teams actually being in “cap hell” or losing a player because of the cap. It is all ownership noise to appease the fans; revenues are strong and the cap keeps jumping up every year.— Bob Sturm (@SportsSturm) February 25, 2020
The Athletic's Bob Sturm summed it up best in a Twitter thread — teams can make the cap dance to whatever tune they want. They can restructure contracts and tag players to their heart's content, knowing that another bump in the cap is inevitably coming to bail them out.
Prescott's franchise number and Cooper's contract may sound daunting, but the Cowboys' offseason isn't over by a long shot.
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