DeMarcus Lawrence was just the beginning. Over the next 12 months, we’re going to see more Cowboys players given contract extensions, and other players will be off the team in an effort to save money and pay off their stars. What’s unfortunate will be the value that some of these players that will be gone bring is higher than others. Some of the Cowboys best players are all on one-year deals, or even one year remaining. But that’s the world of the salary cap.
Some players can stay and others will go. Whether it’s because the team was out-bid, or the player’s representation and the Cowboys front office can’t agree on contract numbers and terms. It happens every year and it will happen again come 2020, if not sooner.
It’s all a numbers game. What number does the player want? What number does ownership want to pay? Is there a number they can agree on? Does that mean another player’s number’s up? For this, we’ll dive into some players who we’ve been hearing about for a while who are up for their contract extension, as well as who could be walking at the expense of it all.
This doesn’t mean anything is a done deal, but if history’s any indication, we can predict how these will go down.
Cowboys QB Dak Prescott (Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports)
This is the most obvious one. The contract extension for Dak Prescott has been talked about since Jerry Jones made it known on 105.3 The Fan back in November.
“Listen, Dak is the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys. He’s young, and he’s going to get extended,” Jones said.
Since then, the mood has changed from “maybe the Cowboys should move on from Dak” to “how much should the Cowboys pay him?” Over this time, the figures have only gone up.
Remember that highest paid QB doesn’t necessarily mean best. If we look at the five highest-paid quarterbacks we can see where Dak Prescott will find his number, and who it will be compared with:
5) Matt Ryan – $30 million/year
4) Carson Wentz – $32 million/year
3) Aaron Rodgers – $33.5 million/year
2) Ben Roethlisberger – $34 million/year
1) Russell Wilson – $35 million/year
Using this we know where Dak Prescott’s contract will start. He won’t get Aaron Rodgers-type money or higher. However, Matt Ryan and Carson Wentz’s deals are more realistic.
He’s likely going to get more than Matt Ryan thanks to the market reset, and could probably get more than Carson Wentz thanks to having better health, more wins, and — aside from the 2017 season — has had a better career up to this point.
Based on all of this, it’s safe to assume a deal of 5 years, $160 million ($32 million per year) with $100 million+ guaranteed is where these negotiations start and what kind of deal he’s going to end up with.
Running backs are hard to figure out. It not only depends on the market but also the health and age of the player. Even still, almost all of the league devalues the position, believing you can get value any time, anywhere. But what happens when you’ve got a generational talent who could become Hall Of Fame worthy one day?
In his first three seasons, Ezekiel Elliott led the league in rushing twice in three years, being suspended six games in 2017. Despite that, he’s currently only the 10th highest paid running back in the league. In fact, only three running backs make over $10 million per year.
- Todd Gurley ($14,375,000 per year) is coming off an injury and his knees may never be the same again;
- Le’Veon Bell ($13,125,000 per year) is back from a year he took off after refusing to play under the franchise tag which ultimately led him to sign with the New York Jets;
- David Johnson ($13 million per year) played a full 16-game season after tearing his ACL in 2017, but even his health and longevity is brought into question.
Make no mistake, Ezekiel Elliott is going to get paid. Hopefully, Dallas not only realizes how valuable he is to the offense but the team overall (28-12 in games he starts).
His quality health, age (23) and the fact that his play has been consistent in his time is edging him closer and closer to being the highest paid running back in the game. The team will likely pick up his fifth-year option and could put his contract on the back burner. After that, his price is going to start at around $14 million per year, with $45 million guaranteed (the amount Gurley got) and will only go up from there.
We all saw the complete 180 this offense made after the trade with Oakland. Amari Cooper was well worth the first round pick they paid to get him.
Not only did Cooper, himself, bounce back to his Pro Bowl form, but Dak Prescott’s play greatly improved. His arrival opened up other receivers like Michael Gallup, Cole Beasley, and Blake Jarwin to more opportunities and even put less pressure on the running game.
How do you price Cooper? Receivers and their contracts are different than quarterbacks. With quarterbacks, it’s usually whoever’s next, gets to be the next highest paid player. With receivers, it’s much more attuned to what the player wants and if the organization is willing to even entertain the offer.
Right away, we know he’s going to get at least $16 million per year based on current contracts. Odell Beckham Jr. is making the most ($18 million per year) and there are six receivers who make between $16 and $17 million per season: Antonio Brown, Mike Evans, Deandre Hopkins, Brandin Cooks, Adam Theilen, and Sammy Watkins.
If we base it off who’s at the top, Amari Cooper certainly falls into that group based on age (25) and his chemistry with Prescott and how it changed the offense.
Receiver contracts are always tricky because some don’t want to overpay for skill positions, especially receivers. It’s just as important to pay for players who’ve earned what they’re worth. This will probably be a deal that gets done later than sooner.
It took the Cowboys a long time to get themselves an All-Pro cornerback, but after landing the creator of the Legion of Boom, Kris Richard and switching Byron Jones back from safety to his natural corner spot, they got him. Now we’ll see if they pay him or search for an All-Pro corner again.
He didn’t log an interception in 2018 but also didn’t allow a touchdown either, solidifying his shut-down status. Shut-down corners are in high demand, no matter for who, but they also come with a high price tag.
There are nine cornerbacks who earn $13 million per year or more. Don’t expect Byron Jones’ deal to get done before any of the offensive players mentioned before.
The Cowboys already picked up his fifth-year option and if I had to guess, he’d be an obvious candidate for the franchise tag. It would give them another year to work out an extension and focus on the previously mentioned players.
Lastly, a player we haven’t heard near as much about but who matters just as much is the player the Cowboys were patient on and who has seemingly paid off.
The Cowboys linebacker group was arguably the focal point of the Cowboys defense, led by Smith and rookie Leighton Vander Esch. Smith seemed to finally recover from his ACL/MCL tears from his final season at Notre Dame, showing the speed and tackling power that made him such a threat in college.
In a breakout season, Jaylon Smith totaled 121 tackles (T-14th in the league) with six tackles for loss, four sacks, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, and four pass breakups. An emerging star, Jaylon Smith made Dallas one of the league’s best in 2018.
Smith’s first contract could actually be a bit less than people might consider. The fact that he missed his rookie season and was limited in his second season could lower his asking price. Being that after this next season he will be an unrestricted free agent, another great season could earn him some money but likely not the same figures that players like CJ Mosley ($17 million per year) or Luke Kuechly ($12.3 million per year) earn.
Given his value to the defense and what the team has seen a health Jaylon Smith can do, right now his deal will not be at the top, but should still be in the range of $8-$11 million per year, especially if he has another great season.
La’el Collins has been a popular name this offseason for a player the Cowboys move on from. Nothing against Collins himself. He’s become a better, high-quality right tackle for the Cowboys but re-signing Cameron Fleming and drafting interior Offensive Lineman, Connor McGovern in the third round — who could push Connor Williams outside — might be the writing on the wall.
Collins is currently scheduled to make about $9.9 million this season and is due for a pay increase. It might be too rich for Dallas to want to pay, especially if the team wants to extend any of the previous players mentioned.
Cutting him would free up $8.5 million in cap room with a hit of only $1.4 million but it’s more likely that, if given the option, the team lets him walk in free agency. Their priorities will be attached to the other, more expensive contract players who will get extensions. Collins is the most expensive player on this list and would make it more possible to extend them.
This is the one that’s been a long time coming. It’s actually a little surprising that the team didn’t release him in the offseason to try and save money.
Sean Lee has been a double-edged sword his entire career. While he’s never played a full 16-game season in his career, his value has been so tremendous that the Cowboys kept him. He’s one of their best, most consistent tacklers, a leader on defense and, when healthy, ranked among the best inside linebackers in the game.
Sean Lee is entering the final year of his contract and will be 33 in July. Unfortunately, he’s been on borrowed time since the team drafted Vander Esch last year. Letting him walk this season will be tough, but the right move for the future.
The Cowboys interior defensive line is stacked this year with depth: Maliek Collins, Antwan Woods, Chris Covington, Daniel Ross, Kerry Hyder can move in and out along the defensive line and this year’s second-round pick Trysten Hill. Tyrone Crawford will be 30 this year and counts $10.1 million against the cap (6th most on the team). His days are numbered.
Aside from Sean Lee, Tyrone Crawford should be the least surprising name here. Not only has the team loaded up on talent on the edge and interior of the line, but his age and salary are red flags right away. 30 is not old but it’s too old to pay to a lineman that much money when other, younger and arguably more valuable pieces are looking to get paid.
Given his ability to go on and outside the line of scrimmage, and his role as a captain, he won’t be cut but this is probably going to be his last year in Dallas.
Allen Hurns is the team’s second-highest paid receiver, but he might not even make the team’s final 53-man roster. Not only did his graphic injury in last year’s playoff game deter him, but he had also been supplanted by the acquisition of Amari Cooper and the rising play of rookie Michael Gallup.
A cap number at $6.25 million for a player that will likely be a fourth or fifth receiver option (assuming he makes the team) doesn’t make much sense. Couple that with a stacked receiver group including the aforementioned Cooper and Gallup, as well as Randall Cobb, Tavon Austin, Noah Brown (H-Back), a surprisingly resurgent Cedrick Wilson, and undrafted free agents Jalen Guyton and Jon’Vea Johnson who’ve also made an impression at OTAs.
Among these four cap casualties, Hurns could be the one who doesn’t even suit up this season. Too many factors. His cap number, coming off an injury, other receiver options who’re more cost-effective. His time with the Cowboys is coming to a close.
This breakdown shows what these extensions could potentially look like:
Dak Prescott: 5 years, $160 million ($100 million guaranteed)
Ezekiel Elliott: 4 years, $58 million ($40 million guaranteed)
Amari Cooper: 5 years, $80 million ($50 million guaranteed)
Byron Jones: 5 years, $65 million ($40 million guaranteed)
Jaylon Smith: 6 years, $55 million ($35 million guaranteed)
Opposed to this are the numbers for players who could be gone to make room, the combined cap number for Tyrone Crawford, Sean Lee, Allen Hurns, and La’el Collins:
A combined $21,354,250 in cap savings with $10,933,334 in dead money
The NFL salary cap is expected to rise to about $200 million in 2020 and the Cowboys are projected to have over $100 million in cap room next season based on who’s on the books right now. Somewhere in the ballpark of $116 million. In theory that would be enough to pay all five players today, but don’t be surprised if they make more moves in the offseason like they did this year, or if the team pays their players even more than projected.
If these extensions don’t get done sooner rather than later, the markets will reset for all these positions and the price tags will just keep going up, and all that cap room won’t matter when more is getting eaten per contract.
By the time the 2020 new league year begins, I expect the last four names to not be re-signed or be released (some may retire), three players (Prescott, Cooper, and Smith) will have extensions, the Cowboys will franchise tag Byron Jones ($16 million) and pick up Ezekiel Elliott’s fifth-year option and work on his extension for 2021.
This is the money the team will need to spend to keep their stars, and these are also the sacrifices they’ll have to make in order to do so.