The NFL salary cap increases seemingly every season.
This has created a world where players are intent on beating the last big contract signed at their respective position.
Player A enters the last year of his rookie deal, and is paid X amount of money, giving him the highest annual salary of any other player at his position.
A few months later, Player B feels he should be the highest paid.
Player B then signs a record contract.
Social media and all of the experts on television debate for weeks whether or not Player B deserves more money than Player A.
Player C enters the chat. You can see where this is going. The cycle starts all over again.
The Dallas Cowboys are not immune to this cycle and will have some negotiating to do with several of their own franchise players in the coming months.
Starting this offseason, we have seen a remarkable change in how the Cowboys' front office does business.
Kellen Moore was released from his contract to make a lateral move to Los Angeles.
A surprise considering how much Dallas values their own homegrown talent.
Several other coaches were also given their walking papers after a second straight season with a premature playoff exit.
Will McClay & Co. used precious draft capital to trade for two playmaking veterans in an attempt to get the team over the hump.
Dallas is usually trying to stockpile draft capital as opposed to spending it on aging veterans.
When it comes to contract talks, we can all hope that this new team philosophy will also be applied to that aspect of the business.
The Cowboys have a reputation for being reactive to the market instead of proactive, and it often ends with them being on the short end of the negotiations.
Here are the top three offensive players who I believe it would behoove Owner/GM Jerry Jones and Executive Vice President Stephen Jones to reach contract extensions with sooner rather than later.
My top three defensive players will be addressed in part two of this article.
QB Dak Prescott
Years left on contract: 2
Average annual salary/NFL rank: $40 million/T-9th
QB Dak Prescott had his contract recently restructured, converting roughly $25 million of his salary into a pro-rated bonus.
This move brought his 2023 salary cap cost down to approximately $26.8 million.
It also ballooned his 2024 salary cap cost to almost $60 million. The salary cap is flexible, but general managers aren't magicians.
The money is just moved further along in the contract, and sometimes beyond the agreed-upon years of the actual contract.
It's a clever hand trick, but not the disappearing act many think it is.
Arizona Cardinals QB Kyler Murray, Philadelphia Eagles QB Jalen Hurts, and Baltimore Ravens QB Lamar Jackson all set the market in some way, shape, or form in the past calendar year.
Does everyone agree that Kansas City Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes is the clear-cut best quarterback in the world?
The answer from most unbiased football fans would be a resounding “YES”.
What if I told you that Mahomes is not even in the top five quarterbacks as far as average annual salary goes?
Cowboys' QB Dak Prescott ends up tied for ninth on this list, coming in at $40 million per year.
Personally, Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes are the only quarterbacks I would say are clearly better than Dak. The rest are up for debate.
If outsiders believe Dak should be up there somewhere in that top five, it's a certainty that Prescott and his agent Todd France believe so as well.
The longer the Cowboys wait, the more expensive Dak will become.
Quarterbacks Trevor Lawrence, Justin Herbert, and Joe Burrow will be in contract talks soon, and all will likely demand to be the highest paid at their position.
The Cowboys have played this game with Prescott before.
Hopefully, they adjust their negotiating strategy this time around.
WR CeeDee Lamb
Years left on contract: 1 (2 with 5th-year team option)
Average annual salary/NFL rank: $3.502 million/60th
Since being drafted 17th overall in the 2020 NFL Draft, CeeDee Lamb has been one of the most productive wide receivers in football.
The uptick in stats each year points to Lamb being an ascending player and one of the brightest young stars on the Cowboys' roster.
Lamb's actual worth on the field was proven by his exceptional 2022 season where he was finally out of Amari Cooper's shadow.
CeeDee hauled in 107 receptions for 1,359 yards and 9 touchdowns on his way to Pro Bowl and 2nd-team All-Pro honors in just his third season.
One aspect of 88's production that most people tend to overlook is that he has accomplished all of this despite playing 16 of his 49 career games with a backup quarterback throwing him the ball.
CeeDee ranks 60th in the NFL in terms of average annual salary. For reference, here is a graphic showing the top 10.
Lamb's actual monetary worth is a discussion that should be had soon for the same reasons I gave for Dak Prescott.
That $30 million average won't be the highest for long with wide receivers like Justin Jefferson, Mike Evans, and Tee Higgins all needing new contracts soon.
The Cowboys can lock up CeeDee Lamb with a new contract averaging roughly $24-26 million per season.
It should make him happy and would be a bargain for Dallas in the long run.
RT Terence Steele
Years left on contract: 1
Average annual salary/NFL rank: $4.304 million/16th
Terence Steele signed as an undrafted free agent out of Texas Tech University in 2020.
He was then thrust into the spotlight as a rookie due to injuries along the Cowboys' offensive line.
Fast forward to 2023, and Steele has started 30 games over his first three seasons, mostly at right tackle.
An ACL injury shortened his 2022 season after 13 games.
The Cowboys decided to place a 2nd round-restricted free agent tender on Steele as opposed to offering a long-term contract.
Steele's recovery seems to be going well, as he has looked good in workouts with offensive line guru Duke Manyweather.
If Steele continues to make progress throughout the offseason, Dallas should offer him a long-term contract.
They might even get a discount if they offer him a deal before he is fully recovered from his knee injury.
Here are the top 10 right tackles in terms of average annual salary.
Where the Cowboys believe Steele falls on this list is the key to his future.
They have made preparations through the draft to replace him.
Dallas spent a 5th-round pick on Matt Waletzko in 2022 and took Asim Richards in the 5th round of 2023.
However, Waletzko and Richards are both unproven assets.
Are the Joneses willing to gamble away the production they know they can get from Steele in exchange for unproven players?
I feel safer keeping Terence Steele around for a few more years, leaving the offensive line with continuity for at least the next few seasons.