Nobody expected Deshaun Watson to get a fully guaranteed five-year, $230 million contract averaging $46 million per year as a part of his trade from the Texans to the Browns in March 2022 considering the quarterback had four years worth $136 million remaining on the four-year extension he previously signed in September 2020. Watson set the stage for other quarterbacks to push for fully guaranteed contracts.
Any momentum there could have been for additional fully guaranteed contracts stopped after Kyler Murray and Russell Wilson signed extensions in the following months. Murray and Wilson's respective five-year extensions with the Cardinals and Broncos averaging $46.1 million and $49 million per year aren't fully guaranteed.
Lamar Jackson made a valiant attempt, but Jalen Hurts signing a five-year extension averaging $51 million per year that isn't completely secure with the Eagles in April was the final nail in the coffin. A couple of weeks later, Jackson signed a conventional five-year, $260 million contract with the Ravens averaging $52 million per year. His $135 million fully guaranteed at signing is the second-most ever in an NFL contract. Jackson was the league's highest-paid player until the Chargers signed Justin Herbert to a five-year extension averaging $52.5 million per year at the start of training camp in late July.
There is a surprising candidate with potential circumstances who might resurrect the fully guaranteed contract: Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott. He is in the third year of the four-year, $160 million deal averaging $40 million per year he signed in March 2021.
How Prescott can earn NFL's next fully guaranteed contract
Prescott isn't an obvious candidate since he is coming off a down year by his standards. He uncharacteristically led the NFL with a career-high 15 interceptions in 2022 despite missing five games early in the season with a fractured right thumb.
Prescott has to have a bounce-back year where he returns to his 2021 form, which was arguably the best season of his NFL career, for a fully guaranteed contract to become a possibility. He posted career highs in completion percentage (68.8%) and touchdown passes (37). His 104.2 passer rating and 4,449 passing yards were the second-best marks of his career.
There's another necessary ingredient besides Prescott returning to his previous form. Prescott and/or his agent, Todd France, need to take exception to the Cowboys recently trading a 2024 fourth-round pick to the 49ers for 2020 third overall pick Trey Lance without informing the quarterback before making the deal. Prescott has said all of the right things publicly about the Lance acquisition.
Potential impact of Trey Lance acquisition
Not giving advance notice about moving up in the 2020 NFL Draft to select Jordan Love was the beginning of the end with quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. How the situation was handled created a rift that eventually led to Rodgers being traded to the Jets a couple days before the 2023 NFL Draft. Rodgers taking things personally seemingly produced arguably the best two-year run of his illustrious career in which he was named NFL MVP in 2020 and 2021.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones tried to diffuse the speculation that acquiring Lance could impact Prescott's tenure in Dallas during a local radio interview with 105.3 The Fan on Tuesday. He said he expects Prescott to be with the Cowboys for a long time. Jones didn't rule out a contract extension during the season.
History doesn't suggest there will be an extension during the season as Prescott's contract dealings with the Cowboys have been difficult. Prescott had to play out his rookie contract and the 2020 season under a $31.409 million franchise tag before getting his current deal. He is the rare quarterback to play under a franchise tag since the 2011 lockout ended. The only other quarterback has been Kirk Cousins with the Commanders in both 2016 and 2017. The prospect of a fully guaranteed deal is a moot point without both a bounce-back year and there being frustrations about the Lance trade or previous negotiations that aren't necessarily for public consumption.
Prescott must bounce back after down year
Proving that 2022 is an anomaly will give Prescott extraordinary leverage in contract negotiations. Prescott has the NFL's second-largest 2024 salary cap number at $59.455 million, which will be untenable, thanks to Dallas restructuring his contract for cap purposes on three different occasions since he signed.
There's a clause prohibiting Dallas from designating Prescott as a franchise or transition player in 2025 should he play out his contract. Prescott also has a no-trade clause. The Cowboys would be contending with $61.915 million of dead money, a salary cap charge for a player no longer on a team's roster, should he waive his no-trade clause or in the unlikely event of being releasing because of regressing badly. The dead money would be the same amount under both scenarios.
With a bounce-back year and a willingness to play hardball, it might be advantageous to delay any substantive contract discussions until after next May 2. That's the deadline for the Cowboys to pick up Lance's fifth-year option for 2025, which could be upwards to $22.5 million based on his current career trajectory.
It would be reminiscent of Drew Brees' negotiating tactics with the Saints in 2016 when he had a league-high $30 million cap number. Brees drove such a hard bargain that he didn't sign his extension until several days before the regular-season opener when a new deal at an earlier date would have given the Saints much-needed cap relief to better address a historically bad defense in 2015.
Waiting could provide clarity about Lance. Making the financial commitment to Lance would likely be offensive to Prescott and France. Passing on the fifth year would create even more favorable negotiating conditions for Prescott's camp.
Under this approach, Prescott would make a fully guaranteed contract a non-negotiable item for an extension regardless of the decision with Lance. The onus would be on Dallas to meet the demands where a fully guaranteed contract is a necessity or face the prospect of losing Prescott for a 2026 third-round compensatory pick, at best, because of the no-trade clause. Possible suitors in 2025 free agency would know well advance of Prescott's contract expectations if Dallas balked.
There is the potential for Prescott to overplay his hand by going this route. He might need to follow up a strong 2023 season with a good 2024 campaign in which he was relatively injury free to get Dallas to give him a fully guaranteed contract on the cusp of 2025 free agency or from someone else on the open market. Since Prescott has achieved lifetime financial security with his current contract, the risk wouldn't be as great as when he played out his rookie contract while making $2.025 million instead of taking the best offer Dallas had on the table. His career NFL player contract earnings to that point were $2,003,392.
Prescott would essentially be a better version of Cousins when he was an unrestricted free agent in 2018. Cousins got $84 million (worth up to $90 million through incentives) over three years from the Vikings to become the NFL's highest-paid player at $28 million per year on the league's first lucrative fully guaranteed veteran contract.
Prescott's most-likely scenario
None of this will come to fruition regardless of how much leverage Prescott might have in 2024 if he is like most players. Quarterbacks in particular haven't been willing to push the envelope contractually.
Typically, an extension is signed with one or two years remaining on a deal. Prescott should be more affordable by getting an extension done sooner rather later because of his uneven 2022 performance. Nonetheless, it wouldn't be surprising if Prescott got in the same neighborhood as the $48.75 million per year maximum value of Giants quarterback Daniel Jones' four-year deal with a timely extension given the changes to the quarterback market this year.
The most-likely scenario is Prescott cutting down on his interceptions in a bounce-back year and getting a deal done where he provides the Cowboys with significant 2024 cap relief before the 2024 league year starts next March 13. His current contract made him the league's second-highest player behind Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes' $45 million per year.
Doing the same thing again would slot Prescott between Jackson and Herbert's respective $52 million and $52.5 million per year. Herbert's $193,738,375 million of total guarantees would likely be topped. That's subject to change where Herbert would become the new benchmark for second place with Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow signing an extension.
It's conceivable that Prescott could become the NFL's first $55 million-per-year player. Becoming only the second player to hit $150 million fully guaranteed at signing wouldn't be out of the question, either.