Last week, Dak Prescott suffered a horrific ankle injury that ended his 2020 season. Prescott was off to a very hot start despite his team’s bad start and was on pace to set several records in his franchise tag season. Prescott’s ankle injury, which was a compound fracture and dislocation, required immediate surgery and it will sideline him for 4 to 6 months. A 6 month timetable would get him back on the field in April. If he takes a cautious approach, he’s back on the field in May, which gives him plenty of time to prepare for OTAs and training camp plus have a full preseason. So, despite the gruesome injury, this is far from an Alex Smith situation (barring any infections, which seem unlikely after a successful surgery) and it looks like Dak should have a full 2021 season. With that being said, who will he end up with? I don’t know what the Colts’ odds are, but put money on it.
The NFL is reducing their salary cap
The NFL proposed a few weeks ago that their salary floor was going to be 175M for 2021. It’s also expected that their salary cap is going to be lower due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and that was confirmed on Monday Night Football by Adam Schefter. The salary cap is currently at 198M and a reduction of any sorts will leave many teams in trouble, including the Cowboys. The league also dropped its request for a salary cap reduction of $8 million in 2020, per NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero. In my opinion, that means that we can expect a reduction of $12M-$16M for next season. If revenues exceed expectations, then the cap floor would be raised, but it still means there will be a serious reduction in the salary cap. A $14M reduction would put the 2021 NFL salary cap at 184M.
The Cowboys have no cap space & little room for maneuvering
The Cowboys are going to have an extremely hard time trying to re-sign Dak Prescott. As it stands right now, the Cowboys have 178M in liabilities (contracts on the books for 2021). That would put them 3M above the salary cap floor and give them only 6M to work with. This isn’t uncharted territory for the Cowboys and teams like them, as they can restructure contracts, cut and trade players to free up space.
However, the Cowboys are a special case. Their two largest contracts, Demarcus Lawrence and Amari Cooper can’t be cut as the team will incur a massive loss so that would only make things worse. The Cowboys could cut Zach Martin and/or Jaylon Smith and save 11M and 7M, respectively, but they are two of their best players in their primes so that wouldn’t make much sense. Tyron Smith and La’El Collins could also be cut, which would result in 10.5M and 8.5M cap savings, but they would be losing their two starting offensive tackles. Their offensive line has struggled without them. Cutting Ezekiel Elliott would save them zero money and they would have to incur a lot of dead cap if they trade him (since they’ve paid him a signing bonus and guaranteed money).
The most likely cuts are:
- Dontari Poe, which would save them 4M
- Anthony Brown, which would save them 4.25M
- Blake Jarwin, which would save them 3.5M
- Greg Zuerlein, which would save them 2M
If the Cowboys were to cut all four, that would save them 13.75M in the salary cap and give them around 19M to work with. That figure does not include their draft class signings and it does not include the key free agents, such as Tyrone Crawford, Aldon Smith, Sean Lee, Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis and Xavier Woods. The Cowboys are 2-3 as it stands and without key players being re-signed (plus some cap casualties), it would be hard to imagine them taking a step forward next season.
The Cowboys have one real avenue to work with in terms of freeing up cap space: trading Demarcus Lawrence and/or Amari Cooper with a post-June 1st designation. That would save them 17M and 20M, respectively. To make this clear, this is essentially the only things the Cowboys can do to free up enough cap space to re-sign Prescott. Trading one of them with that designation would save at least 17M and trading both would save 37M. Freeing up 37M would allow the Cowboys to sign Prescott without many issues. The 17M cap saving would make things easier, but still tricky. In my opinion, trading Cooper (maybe to Indianapolis) would be the right move for them as they could get a high draft pick for him (2nd or 3rd round pick) plus freeing up 20M would give the Cowboys 20something million in cap space, which means they can afford to sign Dak to back-loaded contract. If the Colts can’t get Dak, then they might be able to get Cooper on for cents on the dollar.
The Colts have a lot of cap space
The Colts have a ton of cap space, with only 109M in liabilities on the books for the 2021 season. To put that in perspective, the Colts can sign Dak Prescott to a Patrick Mahomes style 7 year deal, front load it by 10% and still have around 17M until they reach the CAP FLOOR, not even the cap limit!! The Colts won’t do that since Prescott won’t ask for a Mahomes deal (because he will never get one), but the Colts could afford it.
Prescott turned down a 5 year deal for 175M. The Colts could offer him a 6-year deal, worth 225M, front load it by 15% (more money up front for Dak), comfortably sign their draft class and key free agents, such as Anthony Walker, Zach Pascal, Grover Stewart and Justin Houston with room left to spare in the salary cap. It means saying goodbye to Philip Rivers, TY Hilton, Xavier Rhodes, Malik Hooker and Denico Autry but all are players who can be replaced through the draft.
In a year where the salary cap is reduced, Dak’s injury raising questions, that contract would be taken in a heartbeat and it would be impossible for the Cowboys to match it.
The Colts are likely the best team of all teams with a lot of cap space
The top 10 teams with the most cap space heading in 2021 are as follows:
Of those teams, you can count out the Chargers, Bengals, Dolphins and Ravens who all have young, talented quarterbacks with great potential on their roster. That leaves the Jaguars, Colts, Jets, Patriots, Washington and Broncos.
The Jaguars and Broncos both have quarterbacks on their roster who are young and have been performing well, so I doubt they’re going to spend 30M+ on a position that doesn’t necessarily need serious upgrading.
After that round of elimination, that leaves the Colts, Jets, Patriots and Washington. The Jets and Washington are struggling franchises with poor management teams. They are not in better shape than the Colts moving forward. That leaves just the Patriots.
While the Patriots have the greatest coach of this generation, their team lacks a lot of talent on both sides of the ball and their stars (Edelman, Gilmore, McCourty twins, Hightower, Chung) are all on the wrong side of 30. Belichick is going to be 69 years old next season and might not have many seasons left in him. They also have a good option at quarterback in Cam Newton that they might want to explore more in the coming seasons.
The Colts have good young stars on both sides of the ball, have a very good coaching staff and management team, a well liked and devoted owner and a team that is very close to taking that next step into the playoffs. They need a top tier quarterback to take them over the hump. It’s for those reasons why I believe the Colts are the strongest candidate of the teams with adequate cap space.
Dak to the Colts makes a lot of sense for both sides
The Colts have the money to afford him and I mentioned them having stars on both sides of the ball, but here’s why the Colts makes the most sense for him in more detail.
The Colts have one of the strongest pass blocking offensive lines in the NFL. The unit of Castonzo-Nelson-Kelly-Glowinski-Smith will most likely be returning next season as all are under contract and all but Castonzo are in the prime of their careers. They have a very good backfield with a young Jonathan Taylor, Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins also under contract for next season. They also have three young promising receiving options in Michael Pittman Jr., Parris Campbell and Mo Alie-Cox plus stable receivers in Jack Doyle and Zach Pascal. The Colts do lack a true #1 receiver, but in this year’s strong receiving class, that could be found. In fact, the Colts could trade their 2nd round pick for Amari Cooper, get their true #1 receiver and screw the Cowboys out of Cooper and Prescott!
On the defensive side of the ball, the Colts have 3 playmakers on all three levels: Buckner up front, Leonard in the middle and Moore on the back-end. Those three players are all under contract for next season. Good, young players such as Walker, Stewart, Okereke and Turay will be returning next season (Okereke and Turay are under contract and Walker and Stewart would be re-signed based on my earlier analysis). Their secondary has some young promising talent in Julien Blackmon and Rock Ya-Sin.
The Colts’ coaching staff did wonders for Andrew Luck as he had, arguably, his best season as a Colt in 2018. It is a good, offensive minded-staff that should be able to get a lot of Prescott.
For the Colts, it gives them a top 6 quarterback in the NFL who can get them a Super Bowl. If the Colts had Dak Prescott this season, they would be 5-0. Philip Rivers cost them the Browns game and Dak is able to do better than Rivers did against the Jaguars. The Colts defnese has been a top 5 defense in the NFL this season and Dak would turn the offense into a top 10 one. To me, it’s a no brainer for both sides.