National Football League
The Cowboys have a contractual to-do list. What's likely, and where are priorities?
National Football League

The Cowboys have a contractual to-do list. What's likely, and where are priorities?

Published Aug. 1, 2023 10:42 a.m. ET

It seems like things have settled into more of a routine at this Cowboys camp — which is a departure from how things started off. 

The Cowboys hadn't even unpacked their bags at this time a week ago, when they signed Trevon Diggs to a massive contract extension. The deal itself wasn't a shock, as this front office loves to handle its business during training camp. The timing was more surprising, as it's much more common for the deal to come together during the buildup to the preseason. Not that anyone's complaining. Diggs gets his well-deserved payday, and the Cowboys have that much more time to focus on other matters. 

And while a blockbuster extension is usually plenty of contract work for one summer, that isn't the case in 2023. The Cowboys would be wise to tend to several more situations before their season opener on Sept. 10. As we've learned in the last few days, some of those are more urgent than others. Let's look at the to-do list as it stands.

Resolve Zack Martin's holdout


The guy who pays the bills doesn't see this as an issue at all, which is an interesting wrinkle in the situation.

Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones was asked about Zack Martin's absence from camp over the weekend, and his response didn't make it sound like he was ready to cave.

"He'll come to camp when he comes to camp," Jones told reporters. "There's no resolution. There are a lot of consequences if he doesn't. … He's been at the top of the money all the way through, drafted high and got a lot of money, got a lot of money over the years. It's just hard to get it all. The bottom line is, nothing needs to happen."

He's right about the consequences. With a $50,000 fine for every day of absence, Martin has already cost himself roughly $350,000 by declining to show up at training camp. If he were to hold out all the way up to the start of the regular season, he'd be facing about $2 million in penalties.

How much does that matter to a guy who has earned $75 million to this point in his career? The money is nice, but Martin is clearly trying to send a message about how good he is relative to where he's paid in the guard market. Jones is well within his right to point out that Martin is under contract, but Martin is coming off back-to-back first-team All-Pro selections and is not being paid like the best guard in football.

Jones was also sure to point out that the Cowboys can't afford to alter Martin's contract because of other deals they still need to make — namely, that of Micah Parsons.

That argument doesn't hold a ton of water, though, given that Parsons isn't even eligible to sign a long-term extension until 2024 — which is when Martin's salary cap figure will jump to a painful $23.3 million.

Even at a higher salary, the Cowboys could benefit by adding years to Martin's deal. Extending him now would give them the flexibility to reduce his impact on their books, and it'd also give the market time to outpace him once again.

As usual with contract negotiations, it typically comes down to who blinks first. Is Jones willing to work through an entire training camp without his All-Pro guard? Or is there a point where Martin chalks this up as a loss and reports without a new deal? It's hard to imagine a player being willing to miss game checks — though that's exactly the type of thing that could force a front office to fold.

That seems unnecessary. Martin deserves a bump, and extending him could actually help the Cowboys in the big picture. Time will tell if it plays out that seamlessly.

Trevon Diggs, Cowboys agree to 5-year, $97M extension

The Dak dilemma

I'm at the point where I have to regularly stop and remind myself that Dak Prescott still has two years remaining on his deal. Prescott is only halfway through the four-year, $160 million contract he signed back in 2021, but it's understandable if things feel more urgent than that.

After multiple restructures to the current deal, Prescott's cap hit for 2024 is $59 million — a number that would be an NFL record. Depending on how high the salary cap climbs next year, Prescott could account for as much as 24% of the Cowboys' allotted space.

That's why Prescott's situation feels so urgent, even though he's under contract for two more years. It's almost impossible to imagine the Cowboys carrying him on a $59 million cap cost, given all the other players they must pay.

So what happens? Can the Cowboys and Prescott agree on an extension, knowing full well what it would likely cost? Perhaps Prescott would sign for less than the top salary in the sport, which is currently Justin Herbert's $52.5 million per year. But his average annual salary of $40 million is currently tied for ninth, so it's a good bet he'd want to improve on that number.

That might seem hard to stomach given the circumstances. Prescott led the league in interceptions last year despite missing five games due to injury. He also played one of his worst games in the divisional playoff loss to San Francisco. Even so, putting together a contender sounds awfully tricky if Prescott's numbers aren't adjusted.

Maybe the Cowboys would prefer to deal with that in 2024. Or maybe they really are comfortable carrying an enormous cap charge. But with several other deals to sort out, it's much less stressful to nip that problem in the bud.

Is this a make-or-break season for Dak Prescott in Dallas?

Lamb's chops

By virtue of the fifth-year option on his contract, CeeDee Lamb's situation feels much less drastic than that of his veteran teammates. Lamb has one cheap season remaining on his rookie deal before the $18 million option kicks in next year. He absolutely deserves a massive extension, having averaged 1,132 yards per season with a second-team All-Pro selection in 2022.

The question is how the Cowboys prioritize a deal that has plenty of time to materialize — especially with Lamb due a healthy payday in just a few months.

One other interesting wrinkle with Lamb is when and how his deal compares to some other blockbusters. His 2020 draft classmate, Justin Jefferson, is widely expected to become football's next $30-million-plus receiver at some point. Other young stars like Ja'Marr Chase and DeVonta Smith aren't eligible yet but will be soon.

It'll be interesting to see if Lamb is willing to sign an extension before any of those guys, or if he and his representatives want to let the next wave of the market develop. From the sounds of it, the 24-year-old is happy to let his people worry about it while he focuses on football. "When it's right, just come let me know something," he said last week. "Other than that, I'm just gonna keep working, keep building with my guys, and when it comes September, we're trying to start it off right."

Early OL assurances

A pertinent anecdote: in the summer of 2019, the Cowboys agreed to terms with La'el Collins on a five-year, $50 million extension. The deal didn't set the right tackle market, but it was a handsome payday for a key player who had worked hard since landing in the league as an undrafted free agent.

Obviously, Collins' situation was vastly different from Terence Steele's, but the particulars feel familiar. It's even ironic that Collins' hip injury in 2020 opened the door for Steele to play early after going undrafted out of Texas Tech.

Steele has done a remarkable job working back from a knee injury that only occurred in December, so much so that he's already participating in the opening days of training camp. And while he might not have a case for top-of-the-line money, he's more than deserving of a payday that'd keep him in Dallas for the next few years. You'd like to think both sides could agree on a fair number, similar to what we saw with Collins four years ago. While we're here, it's only fair to mention Tyler Biadasz in the same sense. Much like Steele, Biadasz was thrown to the wolves during that harrowing 2020 season, but he's grown into a Pro Bowler as he begins the final year of his rookie contract.

If Biadasz plays out this last year without a deal, he'd be one of the Cowboys' key free agents for 2024, along with Steele (barring a deal) and Tony Pollard. Paying an entire offensive line is easier said than done, but keeping Prescott's center in place is worth considering.

David Helman covers the Dallas Cowboys for FOX Sports. He previously spent nine seasons covering the Cowboys for the team's official website. In 2018, he won a regional Emmy for his role in producing "Dak Prescott: A Family Reunion" about the quarterback's time at Mississippi State. Follow him on Twitter at @davidhelman_.

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