Explaining the Dak Prescott-Amari Cooper puzzle the Cowboys are trying to solve

The Cowboys are in a tricky spot as the franchise tag deadline and 2020 NFL free agency approach, which means Pro Bowl wide receiver Amari Cooper, a couple weeks away from hitting the open market, still doesn’t know whether he’ll remain in Dallas this season and beyond.

That might be why Cooper, 25, publicly reminded the world Thursday he wants “to be a Dallas Cowboy for life,” a sentiment he told 105.3 FM The Fan in Dallas he thinks about almost every day.

“Everything — the facility, I love it here in Frisco (Texas),” Cooper explained. “Just the aura of being a Dallas Cowboy, I mean, you can’t beat it.”

Even with the Cowboys facing multiple tough decisions beyond what to do with Cooper, there’s a good chance the receiver will get his wish.

Key free agents, team needs, cap space & more

Dallas’ priority, rightfully, is 26-year-old quarterback Dak Prescott, who also is set to hit unrestricted free agency in the absence of a contract extension or a tag. But Prescott has the leverage in contract negotiations with the team, which is bad news for Cooper.

One of two things will happen with Prescott before the March 12 deadline for teams to tag players: Either the Cowboys and the QB will reach an agreement on a contract extension, or the team will franchise tag him, likely with an exclusive tender.

Cooper should be hoping for the former outcome, but given where things stand in Prescott’s contract talks, the latter is more likely.

Among the problems for the Cowboys (and, in turn, for Cooper) is the timing of the NFLPA’s vote on whether to accept or reject the collective bargaining agreement proposal NFL owners approved a couple weeks ago. The players’ voting period ends at midnight ET on March 13, eight hours after the tag window closes. The results of that voting will directly impact how Dallas can handle Prescott and Cooper.

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Amari Cooper and Dak Prescott

In theory, the Cowboys could franchise tag Prescott and transition tag Cooper now, then rescind the receiver’s transition tag if they’re forced to do so under a new CBA. That might be their only option if they can’t get Prescott extended before March 12.

Which brings us back to Prescott’s leverage, which he gained after he reportedly turned down a Cowboys contract offer worth $33 million per year and proceeded to play the entire 2019 season at a high level without getting injured.

Now, given the financial benefits of the franchise tag for a quarterback unfazed by the lack of a long-term deal, plus the potential of a market-altering contract for Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, Prescott has no reason to settle for a deal before the tag deadline. He knows he deserves to be compensated as well if not better than Seahawks QB Russell Wilson, the league’s highest-paid player at $35 million per year. (Given the uncertainty of how a new CBA would impact player contracts, Prescott also might want to push for a shorter-term deal.)

That puts pressure on Dallas to give into the QB’s demands if the team wants to make its best-case scenario a reality — getting Prescott locked into a new deal by March 12 and being able to place a tag on Cooper regardless of the results of CBA voting.

(Getty Images)

Amari Cooper

The good news for Cooper is the Cowboys should be motivated to make sure both he and Prescott keep playing in Dallas, at least for 2020. The team has roughly $75 million in available cap space, and though Prescott will earn a chunk of that, Cooper is the clear No. 2 priority over Dallas’ other question marks.

Dallas also must take into account the intangible factor that is the Prescott-Cooper connection, even as Michael Gallup emerges as another top receiver in coordinator Kellen Moore’s offense.

“From the time I got here we were able to hit the ground running,” Cooper said Thursday of his relationship with Prescott. “And just from my experience of being in the NFL, I wouldn’t say that that’s a common thing.”

The Cowboys seem to agree, which is why the player for whom they traded a pair of first-round draft picks in 2018 remains in their plans. Letting such a talented player walk would be off brand for Dallas.

This team is still owned by Jerry Jones, after all.

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