Once again, the Dallas Cowboys’ offseason is about to be dominated by the contract status of starting Quarterback Dak Prescott. But with Prescott entering a second year without a long-term deal and now Andy Dalton also a free agent, the urgency and anxiety over this topic should be even higher in 2021 than previously.
This is the first of our position breakdown series for 2021. Over the next two weeks we’ll be going through the entire Cowboys roster to look at who’s under contract, who isn’t, and what the team’s focus for offseason activities like free agency and the draft is likely to be.
2021 Quarterback Contract Statuses
- Ben DiNucci
- Garrett Gilbert
- Cooper Rush
- Free Agents
- Andy Dalton (U)
- Dak Prescott (U)
U = Unrestricted, R = Restricted, E = Exclusive Rights
Clearly, getting someone signed up to quarterback the team is THE primary goal for the 2021 offseason. Nobody wants to see the reins handed to any of DiNucci, Gilbert, or Rush if competing for a championship is your goal.
Dak Prescott’s contract will be the top story until it gets done and the foundation of Dallas’ entire offseason strategy. With a second franchise tag costing $37.7 million, the Cowboys are highly incentivized to reach a long-term agreement and bring that number down for 2021.
This would be true any season but especially with the salary cap expected to drop this year. Usually increasing by about $10 million every year, the 2021 cap is projected to decrease from $198 million to around $175-$185 million this year as the NFL accounts for revenue losses during the pandemic.
A multiyear contract allows the Cowboys to do creative things to reduce the impact during this fiscally lean season. Just look at Pat Mahomes’ megadeal; only a $24.8 cap hit in 2021 despite being the richest deal ever given to any NFL player.
Dallas won’t have that same degree of flexibility as they likely won’t sign Dak to a 10-year deal. The two sides were reportedly squabbling over just a four or five-year contract in 2020.
Despite past issues in reaching an agreement with Prescott the Cowboys have maintained their expressed commitment to him as their quarterback of the future. There’s no indication, at least by their public comments, that Dak’s lower leg injury in 2020 or any other issues have affected Dallas’ feelings about him going forward.
The proof will be in the proverbial pudding. Dallas and Dak have likely already resumed negotiations and only time will tell how far the team is willing to go keep him here long term.
But the top of the QB depth chart isn’t the only agenda item for the Cowboys in 2021.
After starting nine games for Dallas due to Prescott’s leg injury, Andy Dalton is set to re-enter free agency and may have more appeal now than he did coming out of Cincinnati last year. While 33 years old, Dalton proved last year that he still be a productive passer when there’s enough talent around him.
Even with the Cowboys’ offensive line in shambles in 2020 and the defense rarely helping, Andy went 4-5 as a starter and also helped Dallas secure victory after replacing Prescott in Week 5. The rest of the team had been solvent, it’s reasonable to assume that the Dalton-led Cowboys would have won the NFC East and been a tough out in the playoffs.
Dalton is hoping that other NFL teams saw this and, if they have a good infrastructure in place, would consider making him their starter in 2021. While he likely wouldn’t be more than a 1-2 year option as they look for a true franchise QB, Andy could help a team be respectable during that search.
Imagine if Tom Brady finally calls it quits after this Sunday’s Super Bowl. A team like Tampa Bay, with a solid core of talent and no future franchise QB in the cupboard, could be the perfect temporary home for Dalton.
That hope means Andy Dalton is unlikely to accept any immediate contract offer from the Cowboys before free agency opens in March. Dallas would only be trying to bring him back as a backup and insurance policy against Dak Prescott, and Dalton is probably looking for a greater opportunity.
If Dalton does find work elsewhere then what does that mean for the backup QB job in Dallas?
We got to see one game each from Ben DiNucci and Garrett Gilbert as starters during the injury-plagued 2020 season. But while Gilbert was far more impressive in the near-upset over the Pittsburgh Steelers, DiNucci shouldn’t be dismissed just yet.
As a 7th-round rookie in his first NFL action since leaving James Madison University, DiNucci’s struggles against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 8 were not surprising. The Cowboys weren’t even planning to start Andy Dalton a few weeks before this game, and suddenly the team was down to the 3rd-string QB as 2020 went fully off the rails.
You don’t take a small-school QB like DiNucci and expect him to walk into that kind of environment and thrive. You can hope for the future plot of a Disney movie all you like, but reasonable expectations are that it will take a player like Ben some time to develop.
That means DiNucci, Gilbert, and the returning Cooper Rush should all be in open competition for the backup job should Dallas not bring back Andy Dalton or some other veteran. But given Dak’s injury in 2020 I doubt the the Cowboys will be content to just let one of those three guys be the next man up at quarterback.
Dallas would do well to allow the musical chairs of March and April to go by and see who, like Dalton last May, is still looking for work once the music stops. Maybe it’s Dalton again, or perhaps another veteran like Cam Newton or Tyrod Taylor.
The Cowboys are unlikely to spend a high or even mid-round draft pick at quarterback unless it’s a perceived steal for value. But as we learned in 2016, a 4th-round pick could end up changing the future of your franchise.
Will Dallas finally make that former 4th-rounder their official quarterback of the future? Dak Prescott will be the number-one free agent in all of football if he’s not signed by March 17th. The clock is ticking for the Cowboys to avoid a prolonged negotiation and set the foundation for the rest of their offseason.
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Other Cowboys 2021 Position Previews
DE | DT | LB | CB | S
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