The final numbers of the exclusive franchise tag on Prescott are not in, but figure it to be about $30 million. The Cowboys signed Cooper to a five-year deal for $100 million that includes $40 million guaranteed at the time of signing. If he is on the roster the fifth day of the 2020 league year, his $20 million base salary becomes fully guaranteed, which is why you’ve seen it reported as a $60 million guarantee.
The Cowboys hope to sign Prescott to a multiyear deal that’s likely to make him the third-highest-paid quarterback in terms of average per year. Cooper is now the second-highest-paid receiver in terms of average per year behind Julio Jones of the Atlanta Falcons, who makes $22 million a season.
If the Cowboys’ salary structure seems a little top-heavy, that’s because it is.
Ezekiel Elliott is the NFL’s highest-paid running back, averaging $15 million per season. DeMarcus Lawrence is the highest-paid defensive end at $21 million a season and Zack Martin is the fourth-highest paid guard at $14 million per season.
Jaylon Smith is the sixth-highest-paid inside linebacker ($12.75 million per year), Travis Frederick is the 10th-highest-paid center ($9.4 million), Tyron Smith is the 11th-highest-paid left tackle ($12.2 million) and La’el Collins is the sixth-highest-paid right tackle ($10 million).
Even if Prescott plays on the franchise tag this season, he will be among the top 10 in quarterback compensation. At best, he could top Seattle’s Russell Wilson, who makes $35 million a season, as the highest-paid quarterback.
Byron Jones left the Cowboys via free agency for the Miami Dolphins for a deal that averages $16.5 million and made him the top-paid cornerback until the Philadelphia Eagles traded for Darius Slay and reworked his contract to top Jones.
The Cowboys’ goal is to keep their own players. Jones became too expensive and Robert Quinn‘s $14 million-a-year deal with the Chicago Bears was about $5 million more a year than what Dallas wanted to spend on its sack leader from last season.
The Cowboys’ big free-agent prize so far has been defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who has agreed to a three-year, $18 million deal that included $7 million guaranteed. That’s more of a moderately priced signing, along the lines of the Randall Cobb signing a year ago.
Over the next five seasons, the Cowboys will have to be adept with their salary-cap maneuverings. Elliott is signed through 2024, but the team can effectively get out of the deal after the 2022 season. Lawrence, Tyron Smith and Frederick are signed through 2023 and the Cowboys can get out of those deals after 2021 if they want. They can get out of the Cooper deal after two years with a $6 million dead money charge.
Theoretically, they can get out of Jaylon Smith‘s deal after this season. They would like to have Collins play at least through the 2021 season. Same with Martin.
It seems ghoulish to think about escape hatches on contracts not long after these players agree to some of the richest deals in the league, but that’s how teams have to maneuver — or at least should — because not all of these players will play up to their contracts.
And the Cowboys have to choose wisely when they restructure deals, because that chews up cap space in the future. Salary-cap hell is not a real thing, but salary-cap purgatory is.
The cap is expected to go up in a big way once new television contracts are finalized, but teams thought the 2020 cap could be as much as $204 million. Instead it came in at about $198 million.
All of this means the Cowboys must draft well in order to remain balanced. They have to hit on the low-end contracts and draft picks because of how heavy they are on high-end contracts for the next few years.
If they don’t, and most of their high-end players don’t meet expectations, the Cowboys will go from contending for the postseason to rebuilding in a hurry.