Dallas Cowboys place franchise tag on Dak Prescott ahead of NFL deadline

Jori Epstein
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Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott isn’t going anywhere.

The Cowboys on Monday placed the exclusive franchise tag on Prescott, keeping their 2016 fourth-round selection off the free-agent market.

The move confirms the company party line in recent weeks and months.

“Absolutely not” would the team let the 26-year-old walk, executive vice president Stephen Jones said last month at the NFL scouting combine. Added owner Jerry Jones, in Indianapolis: “I am not, in any way, going to not have his rights, for one minute.”

Monday, in time for the league’s 11:59:59 a.m. ET franchise-tag deadline, the Cowboys ensured that.

The tag guarantees Prescott a 2020 salary equal to at least the average of the top-five quarterback salaries in the league. That number is expected to hover around $33 million, according to NFL Network. The Cowboys could have placed a non-exclusive franchise tag on Prescott for $27 million but apparently weren’t willing to risk Prescott negotiating with other teams.

Prescott said in late January that getting tagged wouldn’t change his focus.

“Hopefully it sends the same message that this year sent,” Prescott told USA TODAY Sports. “But obviously, I want to win. I’m somebody that I’ve gambled on myself my whole life. That’s kind of what it is. I’ve been doubted and told people they’re wrong.

“When you’re playing out a situation, when you’re playing out a contract, there’s no different mindset than that.”

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More questions for Cowboys

Tagging Prescott answers one question: The signal-caller remains the Cowboys’ franchise quarterback going forward. The move also invites at least two more. When, if at all, will the Cowboys and Prescott, months after beginning negotiating, agree to terms on a long-term deal? Also: Which other starters will the Cowboys find a way to re-sign in free agency? Cornerback Byron Jones departed later on Monday, reaching a deal with the Miami Dolphins that made him the NFL's top-paid player at his position. Pro Bowl receiver Amari Cooper and defensive end Robert Quinn are among other players whose contracts are set to expire.

Stephen Jones characterized a Super Bowl-week meeting with Cooper and his agent, Chafie Fields, as upbeat. Jones said Cooper is the team’s No. 2 offseason priority behind Prescott.

The Cowboys dealt Oakland their 2019 first-round draft selection for Cooper, who will turn 26 in June. In 25 games with Dallas, Cooper has caught 132 passes for 1,914 yards and 14 touchdowns. Chemistry with Prescott has contributed to Cooper registering his best career numbers with Dallas. His 76.6 yards per game bests his Raiders mark by 15.4, and he’s caught 76.6% of Prescott’s targets, compared to 61.2% in Oakland.

“I want to be here,” Cooper said from Cowboys locker room in December. “I like it here. … My situation on the team, [Prescott] being the quarterback, the teammates, where I live. Everything.”

What’s taking Cowboys so long on Prescott?

Negotiations between the Cowboys and Prescott’s camp stalled from September around season’s start to a combine meeting late February. Stephen Jones said at the combine he was surprised they hadn’t finalized Prescott’s deal before the 2019 season. The Cowboys had offered Prescott a salary that would place him among the top-five highest-paid quarterbacks in the league. But the two sides didn’t come to terms on an agreement. Sticking points extended further than average annual value—the Cowboys also seek a lengthier contract than Prescott and his representation prefer, people familiar with negotiations told USA TODAY Sports. Those people were granted anonymity due to the sensitive nature of negotiations. Teams have until July 15 to reach long-term deals with franchise-tagged players.

Prescott posted his best statistical year in 2019, completing 388 of 596 passes for 4,902 yards, 30 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. But the Cowboys, at 8-8, missed the playoffs. The discrepancy between stats and win-loss record was stark, Prescott agreed.

“I’m not a numbers guy, and I don’t think anyone ever should be because they’re always misleading,” Prescott said. “Numbers or not, I feel like I took a step individually and I feel like our offense took a step.”

New coach Mike McCarthy has said the same. The Cowboys hired McCarthy in early January after ending Jason Garrett's nearly decade-long run. McCarthy made wholesale changes to the coaching staff but retained offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. The Cowboys posted a league-high 431.5 yards in 2019. The production was enough for McCarthy to walk back his belief that “never again” would he relinquish playcalling duties.

“I have a new job,” McCarthy said Feb. 26 at the combine. “I get to start over and take all those ‘never again’ statements back. … Dallas was the one opportunity that it was something I thought it was important to keep the current offense in place, because of the success they had in the past, the productivity on offense was very high.”

Keeping Prescott in place will be a part of that.

“This is a deal that, ultimately, I have to do,” Jerry Jones said. “It just has to fit and it has to fit a lot of things. For me, this is not about Dak. It's about the team and about how to win.”

With the franchise tag Monday, the Cowboys further commit to that. If the organization has its way, a longer-term deal awaits.

“The same as I feel about Stephen—there's no going forward without Stephen or one of your family members,” Jones said. “So you got to get it figured out.”

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.

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