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Cowboys' game of (franchise) tag could be years away

FRISCO, Texas -- With the window for the franchise tag designation opening today, let's quickly point out that the Dallas Cowboys don’t have a candidate for it in 2017.

In fact, it might be some time before the Cowboys use the tag.

Unless the Cowboys are unable to secure a long-term extension on Zack Martin by the end of the 2018 season, the next possible time the Cowboys could use the tag could be in 2020 for Dak Prescott. Maybe you would put Maliek Collins in that category if he develops the way the Cowboys believe he will.

The last time the Cowboys used the franchise tag was in 2015, when they placed it on Dez Bryant. While the sides were able to agree to a $70 million long-term deal a couple of hours before the deadline, there was regret in using it in the first place.

Bryant was not with the team during the offseason program. He didn't take part in the offseason program. His only appearance at the June minicamp was as a spectator on the final day. When training camp started, the Cowboys wanted to work Bryant in slowly because of the lack of conditioning work with them. He suffered a hamstring injury that kept him out of the preseason games.

Bryant suffered a broken foot in the season opener that led to essentially a lost season.

Stephen Jones wished there could have been a do-over, while understanding the process to get to a long-term deal can take time.

The downside of the tag for the team is the high cap figure. The Cowboys had to carry Bryant's $12.8 million cap figure against their cap once free agency began, which played a part in their decision making in free agency. The downside of the tag for the player is the lack of guaranteed money over a long-term deal.

It can lead to frayed feelings, although the Cowboys and Bryant never got cross with each other.

In their best-laid plans, the Cowboys will sign Martin to a long-term extension this summer after picking up their fifth-year option for 2018 in the spring. That's how they worked it with Tyron Smith in 2014 and that's how they worked it with Travis Frederick in 2016. They have a good thing going with their offensive line and have shown a willingness to pay top dollar.

Ultimately they should avoid a possible contract stalemate with Martin, who is either the best or second-best guard in the NFL.

Of the players set to be unrestricted free agents in 2018, none rise to the franchise tag -- or transition tag -- designation. Maybe DeMarcus Lawrence could edge into that category with a hugely successful 2017, but he is coming off his second back surgery in as many offseasons and had one sack in 2016.

With the way it is looking now, the Cowboys would pick up the fifth-year option for Byron Jones in 2019, but he could be a franchise-tag possibility if he turns into a takeaway machine at safety.

And that brings us to Prescott. Under league rules, the Cowboys cannot extend his contract until after the 2018 season. If -- and there remains an if after just one season -- he continues to develop, the Cowboys will look to take care of him before he can sniff the free-agent market the way the Seattle Seahawks did with Russell Wilson.

The Cowboys were able to work out a deal with Tony Romo on his first big-time extension during the 2007 season, less than two seasons into his tenure as the full-time starter. By the time the Cowboys can to do a deal with Prescott, they will have potentially 48 games of evidence to come up with the proper price tag.

(For those wondering, because Jaylon Smith spent the year on the non-football injury list, he will be a restricted free agent after the 2020 season, so the Cowboys will have him under contractual control in some form.)

The Cowboys have used the franchise tag just five times on four players: Flozell Adams (2002), Ken Hamlin (2008), Anthony Spencer (2012, 2013) and Bryant (2015).

When the Cowboys have had a franchise quarterback such as Romo or Troy Aikman, they have been more than willing to pay the premium.

If Prescott continues to succeed and develop, there's no reason to think they won't pay the premium on him, which would allow them to use the tag on another player after the 2020 season. Maybe that player is Collins, who finished second on the team in sacks in 2016 with five.