With free agency approaching (March 14), we're analyzing the quarterback position on the Dallas Cowboys:
2018 cap hits of top returnees:
Dak Prescott -- $725,848
Cooper Rush -- $556,666
Pending free agents: None
Key stat: Prescott’s yards per attempt fell from 8 yards as a rookie to 6.8 in 2017. The last time a Cowboys full-time starter had an average so low was in 2003 with Quincy Carter. The Cowboys struggled to make dynamic plays in the passing game last season, especially during Ezekiel Elliott's suspension. This isn’t about go routes down the field; it’s about finding chunk plays in the passing game that impact scoring drives. If the field shrinks on an offense, points are hard to come by.
Money matters: While the Cowboys have only $1.28 million committed against the cap to Prescott and Rush, Tony Romo will still count $8.9 million against the cap because he was designated a post-June 1 cut in 2017. Prescott will be eligible for a long-term extension after this season, so if he performs well, the Cowboys will have to pony up big-time dollars for 2019 and beyond, which could create a numbers crunch in the future.
Big picture: Let’s face it, since selecting Troy Aikman with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1989 draft, the Cowboys have been lucky in finding the next two franchise quarterbacks: Romo was an undrafted free agent in 2003; Prescott was selected in the fourth round in 2016. The only other time they took a quarterback with an early-round pick was in 2001 (Carter). In the past decade, the Cowboys have looked at veterans in free agency to fill backup roles (Brad Johnson, Kyle Orton). The Cowboys have not been willing to select a quarterback each year in the draft; they have drafted only four since Aikman in 29 years. They are committed to Prescott, and their moves are intended to make the offense “Dak-friendly” as he grows at the quarterback position.
The game plan: The Cowboys are set with Prescott as their starter, but there could be some forward thinking in their debate as they approach this draft. That’s not something they did in 2007 when they had a chance to take Brady Quinn, who was highly rated on their board, after Romo’s breakout 2006 season. Romo rewarded the Cowboys with how he performed. Prescott has had one great season and one OK season and has areas in which he needs to improve. If he has another OK season, would the Cowboys give him a big-time deal before 2019 or let him play out his rookie contract and roll the dice? Rush was another lucky find as an undrafted free agent. He performed so well in the preseason that the Cowboys had to keep him, and he eventually was named the backup. The Cowboys saw in their own division the benefit of having a veteran backup such as Nick Foles, so they could look in free agency for a veteran backup to compete with Rush. But there is always the long-view play of drafting a quarterback as a safety net for Prescott.