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Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott among Cowboys in line to be paid

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  • By Anthony Holzman-Escareno NFL.com
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On the first day of the 2019 league year, six core members of the Dallas Cowboys were set to become eligible for some sort of free agency after the 2019 season: quarterback Dak Prescott, running back Ezekiel Elliott, receiver Amari Cooper, pass rusher DeMarcus Lawrence (who had been franchise-tagged), linebacker Jaylon Smith (who will be a restricted free agent) and cornerback Byron Jones.

Then, earlier this month, the Cowboys agreed to a five-year, $105 million deal with Lawrence, making him the second-highest paid edge rusher in the NFL, in terms of average annual value, behind only Khalil Mack. The team avoided carrying a $20.6 million cap hit this season, and Lawrence will receive $31 million in 2019.

The first box was checked. But there are so many questions still in Dallas about the rest of the core, and the answers are all dollars and cents. Before we dig into each player's situation, let's consider the team's salary-cap situation.

According to Over The Cap, the Cowboys have $19.7 million in salary cap space and will have $94.0 million in space in 2020 (assuming a $200 million cap in 2020). If the team needs to create space to get deals done with any of the players listed in this piece, Dallas could easily restructure the contracts of either left tackle Tyron Smith and/or right guard Zack Martin.

Over the past five seasons, Dallas regularly restructured the contracts of veterans like Tony Romo, Jason Witten, Travis Frederick, Tyrone Crawford and Sean Lee. Lately, the team has attempted to be more prudent in terms of pushing dead money into the future. However, Smith's contract was restructured in each season from 2015 to '17. Smith and Martin are each due a base salary of $10 million in 2019. The Cowboys could drop each of those base salaries to $1 million and convert the other $9 million into a signing bonus, which can be prorated over the next five seasons (Smith has five years remaining on his current contract and Martin has six), freeing $14.4 million and giving the team approximately $34 million in cap space this offseason (not including the rookie-compensation pool number, which is the amount set aside for signing 2019 draftees).

To put that number into perspective, consider that it would take $38.4 million to roster the following players according to the cap number in the first years of their current contracts:

QB Matt Ryan, Falcons: $17.7 million cap figure in 2018 ($30 million AAV, third-highest at his position)
RB Todd Gurley, Rams: $7.2 million cap figure in 2018 ($14.4 million AAV, highest for a running back)
WR Odell Beckham, Browns: $5.459 million cap figure in 2018 ($18 million AAV, highest for a receiver)
CB Josh Norman, Redskins: $8 million cap figure in 2016 ($15 million AAV)

Except for Ryan, who ranks third, each player listed above is the highest paid at his position in terms of AAV. The contracts of the above-named four players are also similar in structure to the signing-bonus-heavy deals the Cowboys have typically struck when working out long-term extensions (outside of the one for Frederick), with the first year of the contract including a relatively smaller cap charge. Another advantage for the team comes in the form of the current collective bargaining agreement (CBA); because it expires after the 2020 season, teams will have use of both the franchise tag and the transition tag next offseason.

The bottom line is, with a little creative accounting, the Cowboys have all the resources necessary to retain their core long-term beyond 2019 if they truly want to. They will just have to be frugal in free agency in the years to come and focus on building through the draft, because of the number of veteran contracts that will be on the books.

Let's take a closer look at each player's situation:

Dak Prescott, quarterback

Career stats to date: 66.1 completion percentage, 10,876 passing yards, 67:25 TD-to-INT ratio, 96.0 passer rating in three seasons

2018 season stats: 67.7 completion percentage, 3,885 passing yards, 22:8 TD-to-INT ratio, 96.9 passer rating

Perception vs. production: It's easy for fans to blame Prescott for the Cowboys' losses, especially when you consider his splits in wins (109.9 passer rating, 53:6 TD-to-INT ratio) and losses (71.1 passer rating, 14:19 TD-to-INT ratio). I've seen every game of Prescott's career, whistle to whistle, and I can say he doesn't make the best decisions at times. He's never been a high-volume passer, throwing for 300 passing yards just five times since entering the league in 2016 -- that's fewer such games in that span than Blake Bortles (13), Eli Manning (11), Andy Dalton (7), Brian Hoyer (6) and Case Keenum (6).

But the fact of the matter is, Prescott wins. He has 32 career victories, behind only Tom Brady (35) in the period between 2016 and '18. He's won two NFC East titles and made two Pro Bowls in just three years. He has the most game-winning drives (14) in a player's first three seasons in the Super Bowl era. He's the only player in NFL history with 20-plus passing TDs and five-plus rushing TDs in each of his first three seasons. He beat out Tony Romo as a rookie. And he's been able to achieve this success without the help of a creative offensive coordinator who could maximize his skillset.

Here's a good look at the ups and downs of his career, including his recent resurgence with Cooper on the team:

Jerry's expensive words: Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has made multiple statements that have only played into the hands of Prescott and his agent, Todd France (CAA), including that he wouldn't trade Prescott for two first-round picks, including the No. 1 overall pick, during the 2018 season. The QB and his team couldn't have strummed up a sweeter song.

The quarterback market: I always say the quarterback market isn't about who's best, it's about who's next. Prescott is scheduled to make $4.8 million over his rookie contract, but the Cowboys' days of enjoying cheap labor at a lucrative position are over. If the 49ers' Jimmy Garoppolo could turn seven career starts into $27.5 million per season last year, there's no argument for Prescott, who is 32-16 as a starter, to take a dime less. Over The Cap projects the 2020 franchise tag for quarterbacks to fall around $26.8 million. At that number, the Cowboys would pay $58.96 million (or the floor for his guaranteed money in the first two seasons) to tag Prescott for the 2020 and 2021 seasons.

If Prescott is your quarterback long-term, as Jones and the team have emphasized on various occasions, his deal would be the one to work on first, in my humble opinion. Of the players with contracts set to expire after the 2019 season, there are the fewest questions about what Prescott brings to the table. When it's all said and done, a new contract for Prescott should fall somewhere between $28 million and $30 million a clip.

Ezekiel Elliott, running back

Career stats to date: 1,003 touches, 5,247 scrimmage yards, 34 scrimmage TDs in three seasons

2018 season stats: 381 touches, 2,001 scrimmage yards, 9 scrimmage TDs

High volume: Despite serving a six-game suspension in 2017 and resting two Week 17 games (in '16 and '18), Elliott is the only player in the NFL with over 1,000 touches since 2016. And he capitalized on his opportunities, accumulating more scrimmage yards than any player over that span. However, continuing to accrue the kind of workload he did in 2018 -- logging a career-high 381 touches -- seems far from sustainable. The volume of usage and production, even with his youth (he'll turn 24 in July), is a double-edged sword; it both establishes and diminishes his value in the same stroke. The Cowboys will want to find the perfect balance between fairly compensating him and anticipating future waning returns as he ages. As for Elliott, might he want to hold out for a new deal at some point this offseason, so he can get his money before the team runs him into the ground and then lets him walk?

Pulse of the offense: The question of who is the best running back in the NFL is a longer conversation; the truth is, Elliott may be more important to his offense than any other non-quarterback in the league. Yes, he runs behind one of the NFL's best offensive lines, but Elliott's never-say-die style saw him lead the league in yards after contact (949) in 2018, according to Pro Football Focus. He also expanded his role in the passing game, setting career highs in every major receiving category. And then there's the team's record with Elliott (28-12) and without him (4-4).

The running back market: Will Todd Gurley's knee injury -- suffered after he signed his current market-setting extension with the Rams as a three-year veteran -- deter Dallas from following the same time frame with Elliott? Notably, the Cowboys extended 2011 first-rounder Tyron Smith and 2013 first-rounder Travis Frederick after Year 3 but waited until after Year 4 to extend 2014 first-rounder Zack Martin.

If he lands a new deal, Elliott will likely eclipse Gurley's $14.375 million AAV, topping a running back market that has been solidified with the recent contracts given to Gurley, Le'Veon Bell ($13.125 million AAV from the Jets) and David Johnson ($13 million AAV from the Cardinals). However, as Bell discovered this offseason, running backs appear to be facing a slowly moving glass ceiling rather than a booming marketplace.

About the tag: The Cowboys will certainly exercise Elliott's fifth-year option this offseason for the 2020 season. The most fiscally responsible move would be to then force Elliott to play out his rookie contract and two subsequent franchise tags, covering the 2021 and '22 seasons. However, Elliott would be rightfully upset if the team took that approach, and I think the Cowboys will work something out with him at some point.

While Bell "lost" money by refusing to play for the Steelers under the tag last season, he might have opened the door for more players to prioritize long-term security over the immediate compensation of the tag. After all, if Bell had suffered an injury while playing on the tag last season, his market this offseason would have been very different than it was even after he sat out '18; he had very good reason to be risk-averse there. Moreover, Dallas' ownership has a history of rewarding its players, as we saw recently with Lawrence. (I should add that the specifics of the next CBA are obviously unknown and could impact what happens to Elliott after 2020.)

Amari Cooper, wide receiver

Career stats to date: 278 receptions, 3,908 receiving yards, 25 receiving TDs in four seasons

2018 season stats: 75 receptions, 1,005 receiving yards, 7 receiving TDs (53 receptions, 725 receiving yards, 6 receiving TDs with Cowboys)

Producing with Dallas (and boosting Dak): Cooper played in just nine regular season games for the Cowboys, arriving via trade from the Raiders in October -- and still led the team in receiving yards (725) and receiving touchdowns (6). Terrell Owens is the only player to lead his team in receiving yards in fewer games than Cooper, pacing the 2005 Eagles despite appearing in just seven games that season.

He provided an obvious lift for the team, as well; the Cowboys went 3-4 to start the season prior to trading for Cooper and finished 8-3 with him (including the playoffs). Prescott and the rest of the offense operated at a different level with the presence of a No. 1 receiver, as you can see below (statistics include playoffs):

Experienced youth: Despite turning just 25 in June, Cooper will be entering his fifth season in 2019. He's a sudden athlete and precise route runner who separates before and after the catch. He can work underneath, stretch the field vertically and produce after the catch. He's just entering his athletic prime and can be a pillar of Dallas' offense for years to come.

The wide receiver market: In terms of negotiations on a long-term deal for Cooper, Sammy Watkins' $16 million AAV is the absolute floor for Cooper as of now. Talented wide receivers have been rewarded handsomely, and Cooper -- the fourth overall pick in 2015 -- certainly falls in that category. The $16 million-$18 million range seems about right.

As valuable as Cooper has been, he has also disappeared through stretches of his career. Even in Dallas, 397 yards and five of his touchdowns came in just two games (Week 12 vs. Washington and Week 14 vs. Philadelphia). He failed to record a game with more than 80 yards in the other seven outings. Thus, he could be a candidate for the franchise or transition tag in 2020, depending on his production and performance in 2019.

Byron Jones, cornerback

Career stats to date: 303 tackles, 2 interceptions, 38 passes defensed, 11 tackles for loss, 2 forced fumbles in four seasons

2018 season stats: 67 tackles, zero interceptions, 14 passes defensed

Limited time at cornerback: Though he was drafted as a cornerback in 2015, Jones spent his first three NFL seasons as a safety before moving back to cornerback last season. The transition under defensive passing game coordinator Kris Richard worked beautifully for Jones, who earned his first career Pro Bowl selection and was named second-team All-Pro.

Odd man out? The Cowboys have plenty of mouths to feed in the near future. If publicity is used as a measure of importance, Jones' contract may be the one being pushed to the back burner. He recently had hip surgery but hopes to be ready by training camp. Good cornerbacks are hard to find in the NFL, and Jones is one of them. Dallas would do itself no favors allowing him to walk out the door.

The cornerback market: Given his quick adjustment and high level of play at cornerback, Jones should fall around the top of the corner market. Limited ball production is the lone knock on his game, but his versatility and durability (he's never missed a game) provides value to any defense. He should fall right in line with or surpass Washington's Josh Norman ($15.0M AAV) and the Jets' Trumaine Johnson ($14.5M AAV).

That said, like Cooper, Jones would be a candidate for the franchise or transition tag in 2020, as the Cowboys may want to see another season of production out of him at cornerback before committing long-term.

Jaylon Smith, linebacker

Career stats to date: 202 tackles, 5.0 sacks, 9 tackles for loss, 4 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries, 1 touchdown in two seasons played

2018 season stats: 121 tackles, 4.0 sacks, 6 tackles for loss, 2 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries, 1 touchdown

High risk, high reward: When the Cowboys selected Smith 34th overall in the 2016 NFL Draft, some believed he would never play the sport again after suffering ACL and MCL tears in his left knee while playing in the Fiesta Bowl for Notre Dame. He spent the entire 2016 season rehabbing his knee, then started six games in 2017. However, Smith wasn't the same athlete while wearing a brace to deal with drop foot.

Fast-forward to 2019, and he's become the tone-setter on the Dallas defense. He's a sideline-to-sideline presence who plays with his hair on fire. He's proven adept against the run, as a pass rusher and in coverage, blowing up run plays in the backfield and running with wide receivers down the seam in Cover 2. His instincts and football intelligence are off the charts -- he called the plays when veteran linebacker Sean Lee went down early in the 2018 season.

He also increased his production in every major defensive category in 2018. Only two players recorded 120-plus tackles, 4.0-plus sacks and 1-plus forced fumble last season: Smith and first-team All-Pro Colts rookie Darius Leonard.

Restricted free agency: Because he spent 2016 on the non-football injury list while recovering from his knee injury, Smith will only have accrued three seasons when his rookie contract runs out and thus will be a restricted free agent in 2020, and the Cowboys will be able to offer him one of the available RFA tenders. A first-round tender would likely deter a team from signing Smith to an offer sheet. However, it's possible the market dictates Smith's value for Dallas.

The linebacker market: The off-ball linebacker market exploded this offseason, with the Jets' C.J. Mosley ($17 million AAV), the Vikings' Anthony Barr ($13.5 million AAV) and the 49ers' Kwon Alexander ($13.5 million AAV) each receiving deals above the previous market high (the Panthers' Luke Kuechly, with $12.4 million AAV). Smith has an obvious injury history, but if he continues his high level of play, the team won't be able to use it against him when negotiating his next deal.

The worst-case scenario

As mentioned in the intro, the Cowboys can work out long-term deals with everyone listed here if they so desire. But even if you look at the short-term picture, working under the assumption that Dallas will attempt to retain each of these players, it's not as bleak as it may seem. Elliott's fifth-year option and a restricted free agent tender on Smith will keep both players around through 2020. That leaves the franchise tag or transition tag available to be used on two of the remaining three players: Prescott, Cooper or Jones. Thus, Dallas would only need to sign one of those three players to retain either their rights or some form of negotiating rights to all five of the remaining core players through the 2020 season.

Of course, this would be a short-term solution to a long-term challenge. The team will need to lock up the players it intends to employ into the future. Whether or not using these Band-Aids to carry them through 2019 and into the 2020 salary cap is the Cowboys' plan, the Jones family will be handing out the Benjamins very soon.

Follow Anthony Holzman-Escareno on Twitter @FrontOfficeNFL.

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