The Cowboys' 23-17 loss to the 49ers in the wild card playoff round as the NFC's third seed ended in a nightmare. A 17-yard quarterback draw by Dak Prescott with 14 seconds remaining took too much time for Dallas to kill the clock to run a final play from San Francisco's 24-yard line for a potential game-winning touchdown.
Fortunately for Dallas, another nightmare has been avoided because Prescott's preference was a long-term deal rather than playing the 2021 season under a second franchise tag for $37,690,080. Prescott signed a four-year, $160 million contract worth up to $164 million through incentives in March. The deal has $126 million of guarantees, which includes a then-NFL record $95 million fully guaranteed at signing. Prescott's $66 million signing bonus, which is part of the $95 million, is the largest in league history.
Prescott became the NFL's second-highest-paid player at $40 million per year with the deal behind only Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who received a 10-year, $450 million contract extension (worth up to $475 million with incentives) averaging $45 million per year from the Chiefs in 2020. He was subsequently passed for second place when Bills quarterback Josh Allen signed a six-year, $258 million extension (worth a maximum of $288 million through incentives) averaging $43 million per year in August.
The last quarterback to embrace the franchise tag was Kirk Cousins. After playing under franchise tags for consecutive seasons with the Washington Football Team in 2016 and 2017, Cousins broke new ground by signing the NFL's first lucrative fully guaranteed veteran contract with the Vikings in 2018 as an unrestricted free agent. Cousins' three-year, $84 million deal, which made him the league's highest-paid player at $28 million per year, was worth up to $90 million with incentives. He had regressed statistically in 2017 from the previous year and Washington missed the playoffs with a 7-9 record for third place in the NFC East when he got the deal.
The Cowboys would have been prohibited from signing Prescott long-term until Jan. 10, after the regular season had ended a day earlier, if he spent 2021 on a second franchise tag. The roster composition would have changed because the second franchise tag would have been nearly $15.5 million more under the 2021 salary cap than Prescott's $22.2 million 2021 cap number when his four-year deal was signed. A $6.25 million salary conversion in September as the start of the regular season was approaching freed up $5 million of cap space to bring the cap number difference to almost $20.5 million.
Dallas designating Prescott as a franchise player for a third consecutive year would have been cost-prohibitive. A third and final franchise tag with a 44% increase over the 2021 figure would have been $54,274,752.
The Cowboys aren't in great shape salary cap-wise for the 2022 league year. There are currently $222.46 million in 2022 cap commitments, which are the NFL's fourth most, with 42 players under contract and $3.96 million of cap space being carried over to the 2022 league year, according to NFLPA data. Only the top 51 salaries (i.e.; cap numbers) matter with offseason salary cap accounting rules. The 2022 salary cap is expected to be at the $208.2 million ceiling the NFL and NFLPA agreed to in May. Once there are 51 players counting, Dallas is projected to be approximately $18 million over this ceiling.
Obviously, Prescott's $34.45 million 2022 cap number wouldn't be a part of the equation without a long-term deal. Even when the nearly $20.5 million difference in Prescott's actual $17.2 million 2021 cap number and the $37,690,080 is taken into account, Dallas would only have a little more than $1 million of 2022 cap space. A lot of salary cap gymnastics with restructuring contracts and releasing players would have been necessary to accommodate a Prescott franchise tag at $54,274,752.
Athletes First's Todd France, Prescott agent, would be licking his chops with his client on the verge of free agency. In France's shoes, the only way I would do a deal with Dallas before the two-day window opened on March 14 prior to the start of free agency -- when NFL teams are allowed to negotiate with the agents of prospective unrestricted free agents -- would be if specifically instructed by Prescott that he didn't want to test the market.
Following the Cousins blueprint where Prescott became the NFL's highest-paid player on a fully guaranteed three-year contract would have been my objective. Mahomes' $45 million per year wouldn't be the standard. Instead, it would be Allen's league-leading $137,945,405 in the first three new contract years, which averages $45,981,802 per year. The idea would be for Prescott to be positioned to hit the open market as a 31-year-old.