QB Dak Prescott’s contract decision is linchpin to Dallas Cowboys offseason plans

The NFL Scouting Combine begins in Indianapolis on Monday.

And while it represents an up-close-and-personal look at the top prospects for the 2024 NFL Draft, it also represents the beginning of the unofficial tampering period between agents and front office personnel for the start of free agency and the start of the new NFL season.

Dallas Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones will be there along with the team’s famed bus for meetings. It’s where Jones, executive vice president Stephen Jones, vice president of player personnel Will McClay, the scouting department and the majority of the coaching staff will meet and discuss the prospects and other team issues.

There will be two key absences: Head coach Mike McCarthy and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer won’t make the trip. They will monitor the proceedings from the team headquarters at the Star in Frisco.

McCarthy believes it’s the best utilization of his time, helping Zimmer revamp the defense and round out the staff. He will participate virtually in interviews at the combine virtually.

It’s the first salvo in what Jerry Jones already described as all-in mentality toward the 2024 season in what is a make-or-break campaign for McCarthy, who is in the final year of his contract.

None of it will matter until the Cowboys determine the best path forward regarding the contract of quarterback of Dak Prescott, who is also in the final year of a four-year, $160 million contract he signed in 2021 and will count $59 million against the 2024 salary cap.

McCarthy is sold on Prescott as the team’s franchise quarterback and views him as part of the solution to the team finally breaking through in the playoffs rather than a guy who is holding them back as his two playoff wins in eight seasons suggest.

Certainly, Prescott didn’t play his best in the 48-32 playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers, which proved to be a bitter end to a third straight 12-5 regular season and an early playoff exit.

But coming off a season in which led led the NFL with 36 touchdown passes and finished second in NFL MVP voting in what was his first year with Mike McCarthy calling plays, Prescott is still viewed as a foundational piece with room to grow.

For the team to grow and improve in 2024, the Cowboys must address Prescott’s contract, which is the linchpin to Cowboys’ offseason plans.

The team would like re-sign these three priority in-house free agents: cornerback Stephon Gilmore, running back Tony Pollard and left tackle Tyron Smith.

Gilmore’s return would mean that All-Pro cornerback DaRon Bland would play the slot in 2024 with Trevon Diggs returning from a torn ACL and back on the outside.

They also plan to address their shortcomings at linebacker in free agency.

But their wants can’t be addressed until they resolve Prescott’s contract.

The Cowboys got some good news on Friday when the NFL released the salary cap number for 2024. It will be a record $255.5 per team, up a massive $30.6 million from the 2023 number.

It means that rather than a projected $19-21 million over the cap the Cowboys are roughly $8-9 million under the cap for 2024.

They can address that with some simple contract restructures, But to truly do business with their own free agents and be ‘all in’ on trying to add talent from the outside, the Cowboys need to either restructure Prescott’s contract or sign him to a record extension that could approach $60 million annually by some estimations.

A restructure would potentially create $21.86M of 2024 salary cap room by turning 32.79 million of his $34 million 2024 salary into a signing bonus and adding voidable years from 2026.

That comes with a backside poison pill of potentially losing their franchise quarterback via free agency in 2025. He has a no-trade clause in his contract. He also has a provision preventing Dallas from using the franchise tag.

If he leaves in free agency, the Cowboys would have a dead money charge of $58.32 million in 2025, not to mention no known path forward at quarterback.

Why would they sign All-Pro receiver CeeDee Lamb to a contract extension, which is also a possibility once Prescott gets resolved, with no guaranteed future at quarterback?

If the Cowboys are to sign Prescott to a contract extension and lower his cap figure it would behoove them to do it before $5 million roster bonus is due on March 17.

For that to happen, the negotiations need to start now if they haven’t begun already.

And there is no place better than the team bus at the combine in Indianapolis.

Everyone will be there, except for McCarthy.

He can chime in virtually.

Of course, his opinion on Prescott is already known.