Can the Dallas Cowboys afford a team around Dak Prescott?

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports /

Now that the Dallas Cowboys have signed Dak Prescott to an enormous 4-year/$160 million contract, the question on many people’s minds is, “Can the Cowboys afford to build a winning team around him?”

At an average annual salary of $40M, the Dallas Cowboys are dedicating a significant percentage of their annual cap space to a single player. It’s understandable that some Dallas Cowboys fans are concerned with Dallas’ ability to build around him. Especially since the modifier, “historically bad” has been fused to any and all mentions of the Dallas defense these days.

The Dallas Cowboys defense needs a massive injection of talent to be competitive. A starting cornerback, starting free safety, and starting defensive tackle is just the tip of the iceberg. They need new linebackers, rotational defensive linemen, and secondary depth across the board. That’s no small to-do list and certainly cause for concern.

The Dallas Cowboys paid Dak Prescott but can they pay anyone else?

Dak haters have been harping on this for some time. Low brow media personalities like Colin Cowherd have been harping on the fact that Super Bowl winners do not pay their quarterbacks above a certain threshold. The idea is that complete teams win championships. Not teams that overspend at QB.

It’s a narrative the Dallas Cowboys front office eagerly embraced during negotiations. And it’s one they completely abandoned when they eventually agreed on a deal.

It’s almost like they used it as a negotiation tactic to sway public support. It’s almost like they didn’t believe it at all…

I apologize for laying on the sarcasm but the idea that a team is somehow in better position to win WITHOUT their franchise signal caller is a little tough to digest. Would it be better if the QB1 was playing on a rookie deal? Sure. But if you’re trying to fill the game’s most important position, I’m going with the franchise-level player over his replacement level counterpart every day of the week.

How much better is Dak Prescott than a replacement level QB?

I’m glad you asked. Luckily for us Dallas Cowboys fans, we got a taste of it last year when Dak was replaced with the prototypical replacement level QB, Andy Dalton.

Under Dak Prescott, the Dallas Cowboys had a passing EPA of .165. Now compare that to their passing EPA of -.198 (yes, that number is negative) in the weeks after Dak was hurt. That’s down to last in the NFL. The falloff doesn’t get much more significant than that.

“But what about winzzzz,” some will ask? Plain and simple, wins and losses are not a QB stat. That’s long gone by the wayside as we’ve been able to critically evaluate individual play through film and supportive performance numbers. Unless you’re talking about wins above replacement, which is a value-added metric, win-loss record shouldn’t have any impact on individual evaluation. Whether you’re talking about NFL QBs or starting MLB pitchers, it’s an outdated and lazy stat.

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Luckily we live in a day and age where unbiased film grading and in-context statistics are readily available to all. Even Pro Football Focus, who has been extremely critical of Prescott over the years, have his play graded in the top-10. That’d independent of those other players around him too. And all of the qualitative advanced stats back that up. In Dak Prescott’s last full season, he was top-10 in nearly every major category.

In wins above replacement (WAR) which speaks specifically towards replaceability, Dak finished third in the NFL his last full season. That’s not just amongst QBs, but in the whole league. And before he fell to injury last year, he was doing even better, making him even less replaceable.

But wouldn’t it be better to have a few great players at other positions than just one “pretty good” Dak?

Another stellar question. Let’s stay on that WAR scale we just mentioned. WAR shows how many wins a player adds over the average replacement level player. This measures impact and replaceability. We can look at how many wins Pro Bowlers at various positions add to the team by looking at average WAR of top-10 players at their position groups. As you can see in the chart below, QB is king.

For the sake of the argument, let’s say Dak is just top-10 in WAR (and not top-3 like he really was). How many Pro Bowlers would it take to equal one “overpaid” Dak Prescott?

As you can see, it really depends on the position. Receiver is the easiest way to make up that missing WAR, but given that the Dallas Cowboys are already maxed out at WR, that’s not a viable option to make up for the loss of Dak (see also: diminishing returns).

A top-10 safety brings a WAR of .6039 and a top-10 cornerback brings .5172. Those add up to 1.1211 wins above replacement. That’s still 1.3923 off our very modest goal. A top-10 tight end adds .3426 WAR and a top interior O-lineman adds .3212. That’s not enough either. We better keep going….

A top-10 offensive tackle adds .2968 and a top-10 edge player adds .2783. Let’s see how that looks? In total, adding a top-10 SAF, TE, IOL, OT, and EDGE still fall short of what a top-10 QB offers in WAR. Let that sink in.

If you’d rather cut Dak and replace him with a cheap bus driver, all so you can build a strong roster around him, you would need to add a Pro Bowl-level safety, tight end, interior o-lineman, offensive tackle, edge player, and more, just to break even.

THAT’S how important the QB position is in the NFL.

Then why hasn’t a market setting QB ever won a Super Bowl?

The idea that paying your top-10 QB elite money somehow eliminates your franchise from Super Bowl contention is based on poor sample sizes and irresponsible conclusions. Keep in mind, under the last CBA we only have a sample size of 10 over the course of 10 seasons. Going back any further wades into that “apples-to-oranges” territory. So we have an n of 10.

That’s not a number we can confidently draw any conclusions from and it’s skewed heavily by Tom Brady’s dominance this past decade.

If the Falcons would have paid Matt Ryan less, would his team not have switched to prevent offense and choked away the Super Bowl? If the Packers paid Aaron Rodgers less would they have recovered that onside kick? If Drew Brees took less money, would he have gotten that pass interference call?

The best team just doesn’t always win. We need to accept that many different variables go into winning and losing and that’s why large sample sizes are key when attempting to make historically based conclusions. I guarantee you the last Super Bowl would have looked much different had Patrick Mahomes’ O-line been healthy.

The Dallas Cowboys helped their Super Bowl odds

The main takeaway is this: By re-signing Dak Prescott the Dallas Cowboys helped, not hurt, their Super Bowl chances. No single element of the game impacts winning and losing more than the passing portion. It’s not even close, either.

Running games are overrated and defenses are wildly unlikely, unstable, and unaffordable. The best thing a team can do to ensure their winning ways, is to build around a strong passing game and that’s exactly what the Cowboys just did.

It’s also important to point out the Dallas Cowboys are only paying Dak roughly $22.2 million in 2021. Sure it goes up to well over $40 million in Year 3 but so does the salary cap. Remember, that TV money is set to hit in 2022 and 2023. The cap is going to rise considerably.

And we know with Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen about to hit the market, so will the market prices. Dak’s contract actually helps the Dallas Cowboys afford other players. He’s far below what the franchise tag would have cost, and allows the Cowboys to be players in free agency right away (if they are so inclined). The point is – he’s not preventing Dallas from adding talent, he’s helping.

Final Thoughts

Dak Prescott is getting paid ridiculously high and that’s OK. He’s a top-10 QB by all respected metrics, and he plays the most important position in football. Based on wins above replacement, it would take roughly six new Pro Bowl players to replace his WAR on the Dallas Cowboys – a far more costly route.

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Given the current financial climate of the NFL, Dak enables the Dallas Cowboys free agent spending since he’s not going over $40M until Year 3. And by then the new TV money will have kicked in and there will be 4-5 QBs who will have jumped him on the pay scale.

The idea a team can’t win if they pay their QB at the top of the market, is preposterous. Downgrading at the most important position in professional sports is not a good pathway for victory. The Dallas Cowboys have reduced their margin of error for their future investments, yes. They can not afford to have any more Jaylon or Zeke contract mistakes going forward (both will be gone by 2023 anyway). But at the end of the day, Prescott helped, not hindered, the Cowboys’ ability to win this year and beyond. So feel good about it my friends.

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Now let’s go build a team around him because the window is wide open for the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC East right now.

  • Published on 03/09/2021 at 12:30 PM
  • Last updated at 03/09/2021 at 12:35 PM