Could Dak Prescott's contract path with Cowboys follow Kirk Cousins' with Redskins?

FRISCO, Texas -- As the quarterbacks in a massive Sunday night affair between the Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings, all eyes will be on Dak Prescott and Kirk Cousins.

Their teams are fighting for playoff positioning in the NFC, trying to win their division or earn a wild-card spot in a tight race that will not be settled until late December.

Aside from their positions and entrances into the NFL as fourth-round draft picks, there seems to be little in common between Prescott and Cousins. That could change by March.

Prescott could find himself in the same position Cousins was in after the 2015 season with the Washington Redskins -- staring at a franchise tag.

Their paths to a tag could not be more different.

Prescott has started every game he played since the Cowboys took him with the 135th pick in 2016. Cousins started nine games his first three seasons with a 2-7 record after the Redskins took him with the 102nd pick in 2012.

Prescott has a talented roster around him with stability throughout an organization. Cousins was on his second head coach by the time he took over full time in 2015 for a struggling organization that seemed comical at times -- like when team president Bruce Allen referred to Cousins as "Kurt," instead of Kirk.

The feeling around Washington was the organization liked Cousins but never really loved him enough to make him the future. The Cowboys love Prescott.

"We're just optimistic eventually we'll get something done," executive vice president Stephen Jones said. "I mean, Dak's a class act. We love Dak. It's not like we're not willing to pay Dak a lot of money. We're just kind of arguing over some details here that at some point I think we'll work out."

Betting on himself

The Cowboys have stated their desire to keep Prescott for the long term. Dallas has offered north of $32 million per season, which would make him among the highest-paid quarterbacks in the league. So far, the sides have not come to an agreement.

The initial hope was to get a deal done last offseason, but that hope shifted to getting a deal before training camp, during training camp and then before the season opener.

"We just keep grinding," Jones said. "No one thinks more of him than [owner and GM] Jerry [Jones] and I do. ... He's doing everything the right way. There's nothing not to love about him. Great player. Great leader. He's what you want in your franchise quarterback."

Prescott bet on himself entering 2019. Given the way he has played in the first half, he is looking at a win that could make him the highest-paid quarterback in the NFL.

He is on pace for career highs in passing yards (4,760) and touchdown passes (30). He is second in the league in QBR (77.7), behind Seattle's Russell Wilson (78.5), who is atop the quarterback pay standard at $35 million per year. Prescott is third in yards per attempt (8.7), well up from the 7.4 yards he averaged per attempt his first three seasons.

He produces when it matters most. He has clicked with first-year offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. And his leadership continues to be beyond reproach.

But there is a business to football and Prescott has shown he is adept at handling that well, too.

"For me, it's about the reasons why I play this game," Prescott said. "It's not for that [the contract]. All of that is a benefit. All of that is a plus. It's going to be great when it happens, but that has no motivation or reason for why I play this game. So it doesn't affect me week to week. It doesn't affect me preparing for this game or saying I've got to play two seasons without it. ... I don't have to be coached on how to prepare for that."

Business savvy

Cousins was equally effective at dealing with the business. According to reports, Washington's initial offer was $12.5 million per year after the 2015 season and eventually got to $16 million. Cousins and his agent, Mike McCartney, played the long game, believing the Redskins would use the franchise tag.

When they did, Cousins had a guaranteed $19.95 million coming to him in 2016. That upped the cost of the tag in 2017 to $23.94 million (120% of his 2016 salary). If Washington had used the tag a third straight year, it would have cost $34.5 million.

Unable to come to an agreement on a long-term deal, Washington traded for Alex Smith before the 2018 season, allowing Cousins to sign a three-year deal worth a fully guaranteed $84 million with the Vikings.

"When you go through a negotiation like this, the relationship between the agent and player is really important," McCartney said. "There has to be excellent communication and trust. The agent has to do a very good job of analyzing the team's offers and explaining it in detail to the player, and if you're not prepared to accept the offer, similarly explain what you're looking for and why. So when you have a really smart player, who's committed to the partnership, that empowers you, allowing you to do what's best for the player. Unfortunately in this business, some agents are afraid of getting fired and don't fight for maybe a little better structure or whatever it may be, and too often take deals that ultimately are a little too team-friendly."

If the Cowboys use the franchise tag on Prescott, it is projected to cost $27 million in 2020. If they used the tag again in 2021, then it could cost $32.4 million. If they opted to use the exclusive franchise tag on Prescott, it could cost north of $30 million in 2020.

Cousins made roughly $2.1 million in his first four years on his rookie deal. The contractual numbers he passed on in 2016 and '17 are not the same as the Cowboys have offered Prescott, but still would have been life-changing.

Cousins swears it was not hard to remain patient.

"If anything, it helped me put so much stock into this game, this season, because that was all I had," Cousins said. "So I never felt myself looking ahead or worrying about the future because I really didn't know what the future would be, so I could just focus on the task at hand and proving myself that game because I knew that was going to be so important. In a way, it helped take the pressure off because I didn't have expectation. I remember thinking if I had signed a big deal, that number was going to be following me in Washington. Everyone was going to be expecting me to be perfect. So it was, in a way, freeing to just go play that year out and know that if I played well and did my part, the rest would be there."

NFL's best bargain

Prescott is making $2.1 million this season on a rookie contract that will pay him a shade more than $4 million over four seasons. He has cashed in on numerous endorsements that don't come to many other quarterbacks in the NFL. Should he suffer a career-ending injury, he has an insurance policy that would pay him a fair amount of money.

He has been the NFL's best bargain when factoring in the position he plays and the success the Cowboys have had, and now comes the opportunity to cash in.

The top two picks in the 2016 draft, Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, signed extensions in the offseason that guaranteed them $110 million and $107.9 million, respectively. Other than recognizing that their offer in training camp put Prescott among the top 5 in average salary at quarterback, the Cowboys have remained quiet on specifics of the negotiations. But it is safe to assume the guarantee to Prescott is in the $100 million neighborhood.

That a player can resist that much money is surprising.

"I mean it's interesting," said Jones, while not confirming a nine-figure guarantee. "But I have the utmost respect. I get it and understand and don't resent anything about it. I just think this thing will happen when it's supposed to happen."

The Cowboys have never used the franchise tag on a quarterback. There was a stipulation in Tony Romo's contract that they could not use the franchise tag on him before he signed a six-year, $108 million extension in 2013.

They have used the franchise tag three times in the past five years, but worked out long-term deals for Dez Bryant in 2015 and DeMarcus Lawrence in 2019 after the defensive end played the 2018 season on the tag.

Lawrence signed a five-year, $105 million deal in April that was the largest in team history in terms of average per year ($21 million) and guaranteed money ($65 million).

When -- or if -- the Cowboys sign Prescott to a long-term deal, he will top all of those benchmarks.

If the Cowboys have to go to the franchise tag, the similarities between Prescott and Cousins will grow.

"It ended up being a really positive thing for me to be on the tag for two years and Dak's a great player, so I expect if it comes to that, that it would be the same for him," Cousins said. "I think, honestly, the team knows they want you if they're tagging you. They're not going to tag you if they're unsure about you. It's too much money, even for one year, to be unsure about a guy."

ESPN Minnesota Vikings reporter Courtney Cronin contributed to this report.