Dallas Cowboys v New Orleans Saints
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FRISCO, Texas --  The 2024 NFL Draft kicks off Thursday night, but you wouldn't have been too aware of that fact listening to the Dallas Cowboys pre-draft press conference on Tuesday. 

Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones and his son Stephen, Dallas' COO and EVP, spent most of their time with media members going out of their way to defend their salary cap management that led to the 2024 offseason going from being "all in" to "get it done with less" as well as explaining their public lack of progress on extensions for 2023 NFL passing touchdowns leader Dak Prescott and 2023 receptions leader CeeDee Lamb. Both are entering the final year of their current contracts in 2024.

Dallas has spent an NFL-low $13.7 million in free agency this offseason, just under $20 million fewer dollars than the perpetually salary cap-starved New Orleans Saints ($32.2 million), per OverTheCap.com. As a result, the Cowboys lost eight players in free agency, tied for the third-most ever for Dallas in a single offseason. Five of the departures were regular starters last season: running back Tony Pollard (Tennessee Titans), left tackle Tyron Smith (New York Jets), center Tyler Biadasz (Washington Commanders), defensive end Dorance Armstrong (Washington Commanders) and defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins (Seattle Seahawks). 

"I didn't just understand where we are with our cap at the Senior Bowl," Jerry Jones said Tuesday, referencing when he first brought up the "all in" mantra. "That's something we live with and know like I would understand everything, financially, around here. I think our structure and our involvement at every level that we are in our process of getting personnel is ideal for making good decisions. I know what it's like to make a mistake because I'm gonna be living with it 10 years from now. I'm not just in here for a five-year session at GM and then gone. I know what it's like to have to live with how you're doing that. . .... Sometimes you look at your account and you're loaded with money in there that day, but you know you've incurred bills that have three times the bills that you have money in your account, but that day it looks like you got a lot of money. Well, you have to be disciplined about spending what's in your account if you know you got all these bills."

Unprompted, Jones then used the "all in" phrasing once again when asked how he feels about their free agency period, which includes the aforementioned losses and has led to 32-year-old linebacker Eric Kendricks signing a one-year deal and journeyman running back Royce Freeman inking a one-year deal being the only external free agency additions thus far. Jones also complained about the $6.04 million in dead cap money the team has on the books because of the six-year, $90 million extension they signed former running back Ezekiel Elliott to in 2019. 

"We feel great about what we've been in free agency. All in. All in. All in," Jerry said. "We're all in with these young guys. We're all in with this draft. We're all in with knowing that you have to go. the young guys coming in here and playing are incrementally viable. We're counting on them and we've had that happen for us."

The Cowboys have $16.02 million in dead money on their salary cap in 2024, per OverTheCap.com, with Elliott's figure being the top charge. For context, the Green Bay Packers, the team who eliminated the Cowboys 48-32 in the NFC Wild Card Round after leading 27-0, had to eat a $40 million dead cap charge in 2023 for trading quarterback Aaron Rodgers to the New York Jets. Every team deals with dead cap hits, but Jones lamented about being hamstrung by Elliott's lack of production leading to the release of a contract that guaranteed him money for four years of the deal's six seasons. 

One way for the Cowboys to avoid the cap bills Jones referenced would have been to extend Prescott early, which would have given him the ability to spread his quarterback's $55.1 million cap hit out across multiple seasons to lessen the weight on his team's 2024 cap space. Ditto for Lamb's $17.991 million fifth-year option, which is fully-guaranteed. Jones pushed back on the notion that he hasn't been working toward getting a deal done with Prescott, but he essentially admitted he would like to get a better idea of what the quarterback market, saying "we'd like to see some more leaves fall." 

The problem with that philosophy is the way the NFL is operating is the next Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback to sign a new deal is the next quarterback to be the league's highest-paid in terms of average annual salary. Every new, big quarterback contract of late -- Jalen Hurts' (five years, $255 million), Lamar Jackson's (five years, $260 million), Justin Herbert's (five years, $262.5 million) and Joe Burrow's (five years, $275 million) -- have jumped to the top of the list for the NFL's biggest contract ever in the average annual salary metric. Jones appears to be gun shy when it comes signing multiple players to near top of the market deals post-Elliott. 

"Who in the world would think that we're not working on it?" Jerry said. "I work on it at two in the morning sometimes. What your actual question is why don't you have something done and negotiated and put in the drawer? We'd like to see some more leaves fall. We'd like to see some more action. .... "You may give money to somebody that you shouldn't have given it to. ... To say that you're not working on it or going is not the right answer. The difference is the style. It's on your mind. It'd be madness not to know that the contracts are ahead. .... You got trouble with what the timing is around here because I'm not ready to go."

Surprisingly, the Jones family isn't worried Prescott's asking price could increase if other quarterbacks like the Packers' Jordan Love or the Lions' Jared Goff, also entering the final year of their current contracts, sign new deals first because of his knowledge of the NFL's financial situation. The sentiment is puzzling because he also complained about how limiting the salary cap can be Tuesday, making it seem like he would love to have Prescott back with the lowest cap hits possible.

"You're asking me if I worry about things going up. Not worry, but I probably have as good of feel as anybody living on this earth what the cap is going to be three years from now, four years from now, five years from now. I really do," Jerry said. "We've got exceptional insight into where the cap is going to be."

Another confusing part about Dallas waiting on Prescott is that they know just about everything there is to know about him. He has played eight seasons with the Cowboys, and he showed he can hit another level after throwing 36 touchdown passes with a career-best 105.9 passer rating in 2023. Jones would rather adjust to the market than set it, a mindset that may prevent the Cowboys from maximizing cap savings provided by securing their stars to long-term deals. 

Prescott himself said on Friday that "real talks" have yet to happen in the negotiation process, something Jones doesn't think is a necessity to getting a deal done, essentially admitting that once the Cowboys become comfortable with the going rate for a top 12 NFL quarterback that they could get this contract done quickly. 

"I first of all, respect how Dak handles his business, period, as much as any player or any person that I've been associated with. I think that we should realize that talks, quote "talks" don't necessarily, is not a barometer, of whether you're close to a deal, at all," Jerry said. ... "To be very candid, this is pro football. It has to do with the allocation of your resources, which happens to be cap space."

However, Prescott and the Cowboys may end up getting a deal done before the start of the 2024 season simply because Jones says he is motivated to keep his three-time Pro Bowl quarterback long-term. 

"We want Dak Prescott. That's that," Jerry said. "There's no question that Mike's [McCarthy] focus, not that he didn't have focus, but how he [Prescott] improved last year. I give Mike a lot of credit for that. That improvement demonstrated to me there's more as far as ultimately winning what we're trying to do here. ... We think that there's room for growth. He is absolutely unsurpassed as what he is as an individual with his work ethic, what he brings with his leadership and everything about what you would think about as a quarterback. So he's got that. He's had a few hits, but everybody has that too ... This wouldn't even be my response if we were in a different place relative to the cap. ... That's our challenge and to make it work out. Dak as the quarterback Cowboys, I don't even have a blink on that one."

One of the more telling remarks from the Dallas front office is what Stephen Jones admitted: "the elephant in the room is our playoff success." Rather their lack thereof, as Dallas is the only team since the 1970 AFL/NFL merger to win 12 or more regular season games three years in a row and not earn a conference championship game appearance in any of those seasons. If the Cowboys had made the NFC Championship Game last season, there's a chance Prescott's extension may have been signed shortly after the Super Bowl concluded.

"The thing I would say too is that the elephant in the room is our playoff success," Stephen said. "We can win an offseason like we did last year and get an A. Boy, you went and got [wide receiver Brandin] Cooks, you went and got [cornerback Stephon] Gilmore.. .... But guess what, we didn't get it done in the playoffs.. .... We feel like we can do it with this roster. ...  We just feel strongly that because we have had success in the drafts. ... So our priorities have been historically because we've had success in the draft is to then pay your own. ... Now when you're talking about big contracts, like a Dak, like a CeeDee, like a Micah, those things don't happen overnight. ... When you're paying the type of money we ultimately will or would have to to keep them to a Dak, to a Micah, to a CeeDee, you want to make sure you get it right."

Jerry called CeeDee Lamb "one of the best players in the NFL" and was demonstrative that he wants Dak Prescott as his quarterback Tuesday afternoon. Now, it's time for the Cowboys to pay their own so that they can be proactive and better plan out their salary cap for 2025 and beyond. That would allow them to minimize the chance of having another "get it done with less" offseason.