FRISCO, Texas -- Imagine the Dallas Cowboys’ front office putting the pieces of a puzzle together. The four corners are set, but much work remains in the middle and the piece that will bring the shape together is lost, somehow kicked under the table. That's where the Cowboys are right now in their attempts to keep quarterback Dak Prescott, receiver Amari Cooper, cornerback Byron Jones, defensive end Robert Quinn and any number of their 25 players set to become unrestricted free agents.
Part of the difficulty putting the puzzle together isn't just agreeing to the terms on a contract. It's also with the rules involving the NFL's collective bargaining agreement. While the league and NFL Players Association have agreed on a new CBA, the players as a whole have to vote before it is finalized. For that to happen, the lawyers have to hash out the specific language.
From a team and agent perspective, it is hard to do a contract without knowing which rules will be in place. The team has to figure out the structure of the contract to make it work with the salary cap. The agent doesn't want to leave any money on the table.
So, we wait.
"The way I look at these contracts, the two we are talking about," Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said, alluding to Prescott and Cooper, "when things get momentum they can happen in 24 hours. It's just a matter of can you get some traction and headed in the right direction. So sometimes time is not a good thing [and] having a short fuse is a good thing."
But time appears to be running out.
"I see deals get done once you decide. Like DeMarcus Lawrence, we went on for months and weeks, and then we got on the phone with him and it was done in 36 hours," Jones said. "Same thing with [Ezekiel Elliott]. There is a lot of sitting and waiting and sitting and waiting. Then you get the momentum and things happen. No, I am not worried. A month is a long time in a negotiation."
Breaking down the numbers
Let's look closer at some of the most important figures given what we think we know with the franchise tag deadline coming March 12, the legal tampering period starting March 16 and the market opening March 18 regarding Prescott and Cooper.
$200 million plus $19.4 million: The league's expected salary-cap value plus NFLPA figures show the Cowboys carried roughly $19.4 million in unused salary cap space from 2019, so they'll have about $220.5 million in cap space in 2020, according to ESPN's Roster Management. The NFL's final cap figure has not been set, but it could go up by $2 million or so depending on the status of the CBA.
$79.8 million: The Cowboys' projected salary-cap space, according to ESPN's Roster Management. Only Tampa Bay, Buffalo, Indianapolis and Miami have more room, but this number is never static and doesn't account for restricted free-agent tags, draft-pick allocation, injury settlements, practice squad salaries, space needed for incentives and a general "rainy day" fund. While it remains a larger figure than what the Cowboys have had over the years, Jones doesn't look at it as a ton of space.
"We're going to have some challenges with our cap. We are," he said. "Certainly, it's Dak and Amari that are going to shrink it in a hurry. We're going to have challenges, but they're not challenges that we can't overcome. It's going to be something that we've really got to keep our fingers on."
$35 million: Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson’s average salary per year (APY) as the league's highest paid quarterback. Wilson has won a Super Bowl with the Seahawks and taken them to a second Super Bowl.
$34 million: The expected cost of the exclusive franchise tag on Prescott, which would prevent him from signing with another team. It would increase any talks on a contract to about $75 million in the first two years. If the team uses the franchise tag on a player in consecutive years, it comes at a 120% raise.
$33.5 million: Quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who has a Super Bowl win on his résumé with the Green Bay Packers, and quarterback Jared Goff, who took the Los Angeles Rams to the Super Bowl in 2018, have the third highest APY.
$33 million: The APY of the Cowboys' offer to Prescott last season, according to sources, that the quarterback declined. Prescott's fast start to the 2019 season -- nine touchdowns, two interceptions in the first three games -- seemed to put an end to the in-season negotiations. Jones said the team stopped talking with the quarterback's agent after September and didn't resume until last week at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.
$27 million: The expected cost of the non-exclusive franchise tag on a quarterback. If the Cowboys had to use the tag on Prescott again in 2021, then it would come at a cost of $33 million, which puts discussions on a present-day long-term contract at $60 million in the first two years. If the Cowboys used the non-exclusive tag on Prescott, then teams could sign him, but Dallas would be able to match the offer or receive two first-round picks in return.
$19.25 million: Mike Thomas of the New Orleans Saints checks in at No. 2 among receivers with the deal he signed in 2019. Thomas caught a record 149 passes for 1,725 yards and nine touchdowns in 2019. No player in NFL history has more receptions (470) in his first four seasons than Thomas.
$18.4 million: Projected franchise tag on Cooper. The transition tag would cost roughly $15.9 million. If the players approve the new CBA, the Cowboys could not use two tags, so this would be applicable only if Prescott is signed to a long-term deal. Cooper made $13.9 million last year on the fifth-year option of his rookie contract.
$18 million: Tyreek Hill of the Kansas City Chiefs and the Cleveland Browns’ Odell Beckham Jr. have the third-highest APY among receivers, but in slightly different ways. Hill signed a three-year deal last year, while Beckham signed a five-year deal in 2018 with the New York Giants before being traded to Cleveland.