Dak Prescott’s 2020 season came to end on Sunday during the third quarter of the Cowboys’ 37-34 win over the Giants because of an open or compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle. The Cowboys quarterback had surgery on Sunday night. The injury isn’t considered career threatening. The expected recovery timetable for Prescott is four to six months.

Prescott was having his best year statistically when he got hurt. Through the quarter mark of the season, Prescott was on pace to shatter the NFL’s single-season passing yards record (5,477), which Peyton Manning set in 2013 as the Broncos quarterback. Going into Sunday’s game, Prescott was projecting to 6,760 passing yards for the season. He also completed a career-high 68 percent of his passes in the five games he played.

Prescott is playing this season under a fully guaranteed $31.409 million exclusive franchise tag. A last ditch effort to reach a long term agreement before the July 15 deadline for franchise players to sign multi-year contracts was made. After months of a contract stalemate, the Cowboys’ final five-year offer reportedly averaged in the $35 million per million year neighborhood with $110 million in guarantees, of which $50 million was a signing bonus. $70 million was in the first two contract years. 

The biggest sticking point was length of contract, as Prescott wanted a four year deal. According to CBS Sports NFL Insider Jason LaCanfora, Prescott would have accepted the five year deal if the Cowboys had included a provision preventing him from being designated as franchise or transition player at the conclusion of the contract.

Did Prescott lose his gamble on himself?

Some believe that Prescott gambled and has lost big by betting on himself. That’s not necessarily the case. Prescott made a bigger and riskier bet on himself last year by reportedly turning down a $30 million per year offer before the 2019 season started. He had only made a little over $2 million from his rookie contract during his first three NFL seasons at that point and had a $2.025 million salary in the final year of the deal.

Cowboys chief operating officer and executive vice president Stephen Jones called Prescott “our future” on Monday in a radio interview with 105.3 The Fan. Jerry Jones, the Cowboys owner, also reiterated on 105.3 The Fan that Prescott’s injury doesn’t change Dallas’ plans for him.

Actions will speak louder than words since the NFL is first and foremost a business. Similar sentiments were expressed after Tony Romo a fractured vertebra in his back during a 2016 preseason game. When healthy, Romo never got his starting job back after being the Cowboys quarterback for a decade because of the team’s great start with Prescott replacing him. Andy Dalton, who had a 70-61-2 record as a starter during his nine seasons with the Bengals, consistently performing at a Pro Bowl caliber level where the Cowboys make a deep playoff or some sort of major complications post-surgery would be extremely problematic for Prescott’s future in Dallas. The odds for the former aren’t good, partially because the Cowboys offensive line has been decimated by injury and the defense is in disarray.

Outside of one of those two things happening, it’s hard to envision the path where Prescott and Cowboys were heading materially changing. Under the NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement’s franchise player rules, the Cowboys are prohibited from signing Prescott to a multi-year contract until the end of the 2020 regular season on Jan. 3, 2021. By this time, the Cowboys should have a good idea whether Prescott’s recovery is progressing as expected. 

The most likely scenario

The Cowboys are still likely facing the prospect of a second franchise tag in 2021 for $37,690,800 at a CBA mandated 20 percent raise. A transition tag would be at the same amount as the franchise tag, but would only provide the Cowboys with a right to match an offer sheet from another team. 

A second franchise tag will be more challenging because of the COVID-19 pandemic creating such a revenue shortfall that the NFL and NFLPA agreed to a $175 million salary cap floor for 2021. Prescott’s current tag is 15.85 percent of the league-wide $198.2 million salary cap. A $37,690,800 2021 tag would be 21.54 percent of the salary cap at next year’s $175 million floor. If revenues are better than expected, the 2021 salary cap could be higher, but will likely remain below the current level of $198.2 million.

Dallas already has just over $178.5 million in 2021 salary cap commitments using offseason cap accounting rules where only the top 51 cap numbers matter according to NFLPA data. There are currently 42 players under contract in 2021. Although there is a little less than $24.825 million of existing cap space that can be carried over to 2021, Dallas would need to restructure contracts to create salary cap room, negotiate pay cuts with contracted players and/or release some players in order to accommodate a second Prescott franchise tag next year.

The Cowboys getting a deal done before the end of the designation period next March had Prescott stayed healthy would have been surprising. Prescott would have had little incentive to sign before the Cowboys had to decide whether to let him become a free agent. 

It remains to be seen whether the injury will make Prescott more risk averse in contract negotiations and quickly lead to a long-term agreement in the offseason. Dallas thinking it can leverage Prescott’s injury into a better deal than before could backfire. Todd France, Prescott’s agent, is well aware of the four year, $156 million extension averaging $39 million per year Deshaun Watson signed with the Texans as the start of the regular season was approaching. 

A possible suitor?

As long as Prescott doesn’t have any complications post-surgery or in recovery, Dallas probably can’t risk letting him on the open market. Prescott would likely have no shortage of suitors, because a Pro Bowl caliber quarterback in his prime almost never becomes an unrestricted free agent and he was keeping the Cowboys in games with his arm.

One intriguing possibility would be the Colts. Philip Rivers, who’s 38 years old, is signed to a one-year deal and the Colts are in great shape with the salary cap for next year. Matt Eberflus, the Colts’ defensive coordinator, was the Cowboys’ linebackers coach during Prescott’s first two NFL seasons. 

The Colts have the fewest 2021 cap commitments at $108.3 million, with 36 players under contract. There’s also a little less than $9.85 million of 2020 cap room than can be carried over to next year. 

Final thoughts

I suspect that Dallas won’t be able to get a deal done with Prescott early in offseason, making the second franchise tag almost inevitable. The cost of franchising Prescott a second time in 2021 will likely become the starting point for serious negotiations to France. Unlike this year, Prescott might quickly sign his nearly $37.7 million franchise tender because of the injury to remove any possibility of rescission from the Cowboys. 

At this point, the franchise tag dynamics favor Prescott. Dallas overplaying its hand in negotiations would make a very expensive one-year “prove it” deal more appealing because Prescott would become an unrestricted free agent in 2022 or receive a third franchise tag at a 44 percent increase over the 2021 figure for $54,274,752. If the Joneses words about Prescott after suffering the injury were sincere, the Cowboys might be forced to pay Prescott more than Watson’s $39 million per year at the franchise player long term deal deadline next July, as long as his ankle checks out, knowing there wouldn’t be any good options in 2022. 

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