Dallas Cowboys need to at least ask the Matthew Stafford question

FRISCO, Texas -- With the help of NFL executives from around the league, ESPN's Jeremy Fowler put together nine potential destinations for Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford on Monday. The Dallas Cowboys were not among them. But should they have been included?

Coming up with a trade package the Lions might consider could be the most difficult part of the process. Other NFL teams might be able to promise more in terms of first-round picks or a combination of premium picks and a player (or players) than the Cowboys, who have one first-round pick and one second-rounder in the 2021 NFL draft. But, if player acquisition is a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week job, as executive vice president Stephen Jones says, then the Cowboys have to at least look at the possibility.

Here's what we know: the Cowboys want to sign quarterback Dak Prescott to a long-term deal. Prescott wants to be with the Cowboys on a long-term deal. Both sides have said so on numerous occasions, yet we are about to enter the third offseason of negotiations on a long-term solution with much more complicated circumstances in which to complete a deal.

Before the 2019 season, Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones thought a deal that would have paid Prescott roughly $33 million a year was imminent. Last summer, the Cowboys thought they were going to close on a deal that was worth $34.5 million a year.

Twice the deals eluded them.

To date, there have been no talks between the Cowboys and Prescott's agent, Todd France. Once the 2020 NFL season ended for the Cowboys, they were able to talk again after Prescott played last season on the $31.4 million franchise tag. The fact that talks have not resumed is not necessarily alarming since so much remains unknown regarding the 2021 salary cap because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The franchise-tag window opens on Feb. 23 and closes March 9. It would cost the Cowboys $37.7 million to use the tag on Prescott again for 2021, which would require some maneuvering by the team to get that much space under the cap.

If the Cowboys feel the negotiations with France will be difficult once again without the promise of a long-term agreement by the mid-June deadline, shouldn't they at least explore the possibility of adding Stafford, who will not be back with the Lions?

If Prescott plays the 2021 season on the tag again, rest assured it will be his final season with the Cowboys. The only other quarterback to play on successive franchise tags is Kirk Cousins with Washington from 2016 to 2017. He signed a fully guaranteed deal with the Minnesota Vikings in 2018 as a free agent. For the Cowboys to use the tag on Prescott for a third time, it would cost them a little more than $52 million in 2022.

Stafford, who starred at Highland Park High School in Dallas (not far from both Joneses' homes), is under contract through 2022 with cap figures of $20 million and $23 million. Stafford turns 33 in February and has been beaten up over the years, so he does not come without risk. Stafford also has not won a playoff game, but is his 74-90-1 record a product of the Detroit organization or his own shortcomings?

On the other hand, there is risk in keeping Prescott as well. While there is confidence he will be the player he was before suffering a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle in October 2020, his return to form is not a certainty. And if the Cowboys have Prescott on the tag or under a long-term deal, the cost against the cap would be prohibitive in 2021 and beyond. It could make it difficult for Dallas to upgrade a roster that has missed the playoffs in three of the past four seasons.

Conservatively, the Cowboys would have a difference of about $30 million in cap space over the next two years from Stafford to Prescott if the latter signs a long-term deal. What could the Cowboys do with that extra money? Add a safety, linebacker, cornerback or defensive tackle?

Prescott turns 28 in July. He has shown improvement each season since being drafted in the fourth round by Dallas in 2016. He was on pace for ridiculous numbers before his injury. He entered Week 5 with 1,690 passing yards, an NFL best and the most by a Cowboys quarterback through four games in team history.

But Prescott's absence after Week 5 showed that he is the unquestioned leader of the team and how much the Cowboys rely on him to succeed. While a rookie quarterback might find it difficult to step into Prescott's role, a veteran such as Stafford has a résumé -- plus the toughness and fortitude he displayed in Detroit -- that would mitigate that issue.

Teams prefer long-term security at quarterback. Knowing they have "the guy" at the position is something that can't be measured, but if the Cowboys know they can't get a deal done with Prescott quickly, then would two years of Stafford at a combined $43 million in cash put them in a better spot than one year of Prescott at $37 million?

It's a question the Cowboys have to at least ask.