Delicate decision regarding level of Dak Prescott franchise tag looms for the Cowboys

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Last week, we tried to identify the players who would not be traded for the Jalen Ramsey package: An offer of two first-round picks and a fourth-round pick. As the Cowboys and quarterback Dak Prescott continue to move week by week toward the expiration of his rookie contract, there’s a chance someone will eventually be able to try to pry Prescott away for a pair of first-round picks.

Unless the Cowboys sign Prescott to a new contract before the deadline for applying the franchise tag in February, they’ll have to decide whether to use the non-exclusive or the exclusive version of the tag. The non-exclusive tag would allow another team to sign Prescott to an offer sheet and, if the Cowboys can’t or won’t match it, to get him in exchange for two first-round picks. The exclusive tag prevents Prescott from even talking to another team.

So the Cowboys would use the exclusive version of the tag, right? Maybe not. Because the formula for the non-exclusive tag is tied to the five-year average of the percentage of the cap consumed by the five highest-paid quarterbacks and because the quarterback market has spiked only in the past couple of years, the non-exclusive tag for 2020 should be in the range of $25 million to $26 million. (For 2019, it was $24.865 million.) The exclusive tag comes from the average of the five highest-paid quarterbacks for 2020. Subject to potential restructurings that could drive the cap numbers down, the current projected exclusive franchise quarterback tender will be $33.4 million, based on 2020 cap figures tabulated by OverTheCap.com.

That’s an enormous difference, especially because Prescott would be entitled to a 20-percent raise if franchise-tagged again in 2021 — and a 44-percent raise if franchise-tagged a third time. Even if the non-exclusive quarterback tender spikes to $27 million, the three-year haul under the non-exclusive tender would be $106 million ($27 million in 2020, $32.4 million in 2021, and $46.656 million in 2022). Under the currently projected exclusive tender, the three-year total would be $131.23 million ($33.4 million in 2020, $40.08 million in 2021, and $57.715 million in 2022).

If the Cowboys wouldn’t trade Prescott for a pair of first-round picks, they need to get the deal done to avoid landing in the same dilemma the Ravens faced in early 2013, when quarterback Joe Flacco got a market-setting deal because the Ravens didn’t want to have to choose between non-exclusive and exclusive franchise tenders. And the longer the Cowboys wait, the more it will cost. Eventually, Prescott will shed the injury risk by completing his rookie contract.

Based on late night’s apples-to-apples contest between Prescott and Carson Wentz‘s Eagles, it’s not hard to justify giving Prescott more than Wentz’s $32 million per year in new money. Especially since, given the $2 million salary Prescott is earning this year, giving Prescott the Jimmy Garoppolo contract (five years, $27.5 million per year at signing) would generate a new-money average of $33.875 million per year.

Whatever the details, Prescott has earned his spot on the right side of $32 million per year in new money. The question is whether the Cowboys get it done before the price potentially goes even higher — and before at least one other team realizes it would be happy to pilfer Prescott in exchange for two first-round picks, potentially forcing Dallas into a ridiculously expensive dance under the exclusive franchise tag, one that would pay out an average of $43.74 million over the next three years.