You’re probably as sick of hearing about the reduced salary cap in 2021 as I am of writing about it. Unfortunately, it’s a reality that clouds everything about the current offseason for all NFL teams. Today, I thought we’d look at how this decreased spending power could for the Dallas Cowboys to take a big risk with their backup quarterback.
Last year the Cowboys went high security at QB by signing veteran Andy Dalton to back up Dak Prescott. Even though Cooper Rush had held the job for nearly three seasons, Dallas decided to upgrade with Dalton’s talent and experience.
Had the rest of the roster not been falling apart due to injuries and bad coaching hires, Dalton’s presence just might have saved the season when Prescott got injured in Week 5. A more solvent Cowboys team overall, even with Dalton at the helm, likely wins the NFC East in 2020 and possibly fares better against the Tampa Bay Bucs than Washington did.
From there, who knows?
With 2021 free agency just 10 days away and Dalton’s one-year contract expiring, the backup quarterback position is again a concern for the Cowboys. Now you also have Dak Prescott coming off a major season-ending injury and putting even more onus on having a solid player behind him.
Unfortunately, spending a few million on that spot may not be as easy as it used to be. The the projected reduction in the salary cap and Dak’s contract still to figure out, the Cowboys may have to look to their cheaper in-house options over re-signing Andy Dalton or bringing in some other experienced veteran.
Dallas may very well have to let Ben DiNucci, Garrett Gilbert, and Cooper Rush battle it out for the backup job.
Last season we saw one full game each out of DiNucci and Gilbert when Dalton was injured. Rush, after leaving the Cowboys to join the Giants, was re-signed in the middle of the year and never got on the field.
These three players’ combined salaries for 2021 are a little less than the $3 million that Dalton made last year. The Cowboys can stand to save at least $2 million or more by going with one of them over the general cost of a proven, veteran backup.
We have very little to go on with any of these passers as far as their true value. One good day from Gilbert against the Steelers, a bad day from DiNucci against the Eagles, and still having never seen Rush in a real game; who knows what any of these guys really are?
There’s at least some hope that, in an open competition, one competent backup would emerge. Gilbert and Rush both have several years of experience in NFL systems, plus Gilbert was a standout passer in the short-lived AAF. And while he struggled in his first NFL start as a rookie, DiNucci may still have potential to unlock in his second year.
But “hope” is a dangerous word and especially at your most important position. Whether it was Steve Beuerlein in 1991, Tony Romo in 2006, or Dak Prescott in 2016, the Cowboys know the value of having a strong backup QB who can still get the team to the playoffs.
Maybe DiNucci, Gilbert, or Rush can be that player in 2021. And of course, the real hope is that we never have to see any of them take a meaningful snap in a game.
But unless the Cowboys are able to create more wiggle room under the salary cap this year, investing in a proven passer for depth may not be possible. Finances could force Dallas to gamble on one of their developmental prospects as Prescott’s primary backup in 2021.