Cowboys top list of teams facing critical unfinished business after NFL Draft

QB deals for Tua Tagovailoa, Trevor Lawrence and Jared Goff also among leading offseason storylines

The Dallas Cowboys finally got a veteran contract done. Just not any of the ones who are truly pressing.

In the realm of unfinished business for the franchise, that’s right about where Monday’s one-year deal for running back Ezekiel Elliott registers. It’s a blip on the priority scale, adding a modestly reliable deck chair to a ship that has spent the majority of the offseason sinking. And all of this in the backdrop of team owner Jerry Jones’ now infamous “all in” proclamation. Precisely how “all in” have the Cowboys been? Well, let’s survey.

The head coach, Mike McCarthy, is entering the final year of his contract. It's a season that will feature Jerry’s buddy, Bill Belichick, vulturing from the sideline as he looks for a “win now” opportunity in 2025.

The franchise quarterback, Dak Prescott, has no contract extension in sight and is now subject to endless offseason debates about his level of importance to the team.

The top-five wideout, CeeDee Lamb, is seeing a steep price tag become more justifiable by the month, leading to a legitimate question about why the Cowboys didn’t push harder to extend his deal one year ago.

And the best defensive player on the team, Micah Parsons … re-read the above paragraph about Lamb and apply it to next offseason, when we’ll likely be asking why Dallas didn’t get Parsons' deal done one year earlier rather than one year later.

That’s a lot of unfinished business for Dallas, an assembly line of loose ends that easily dwarfs the looming problems of every other team in the NFL. And it’s coming in an offseason when the franchise’s talent has gotten worse.

Dak Prescott (4) and CeeDee Lamb are both due for major contract extensions, adding to the Cowboys' laundry list of issues this offseason. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)
Dak Prescott (4) and CeeDee Lamb are both due for major contract extensions, adding to the Cowboys' laundry list of issues this offseason. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)

The offensive line? Younger but not necessarily better.

The running backs? A rotation without a dynamic player.

The wideouts? Less depth.

The defense? Lost the best assistant coach on the staff in coordinator Dan Quinn and watched DeMarcus Lawrence get another year older.

Lest we forget, this all comes amid smaller headlines that should also convey concerns, like the fact that Parsons and Lamb skipped voluntary workouts at the team’s facility this offseason.

Piece it all together and it doesn’t necessitate stepping back to understand the larger picture: The Cowboys are at a critical juncture in almost every imaginable way. The franchise could conceivably have a new head coach and new starting quarterback one year from now. Few NFL franchises find themselves in that kind of position and don’t slip into some phase of a rebuild.

All of which makes it important that Dallas gets something — anything — of consequence done in the next few months. The top of the list will be Lamb’s extension, which is trending toward making him the highest paid wide receiver in the NFL for at least a short time. Next up will be finding some common ground with Prescott, although as of this week, there was no progress on any new contract with him. But knowing where Prescott stands would go a long way in shaping up a timeframe with Parsons, too. Particularly if Prescott appears destined to test free agency next offseason, which would all but assure he will depart Dallas.

Unquestionably, this is the biggest slate of unfinished business in the league. And the answers promise to shape the Cowboys for at least the next half decade.

As for the rest of the NFL, here are the biggest remaining storylines as we head toward the summer …

Prescott isn’t the only quarterback with an extension that needs to be hammered out. Four other key deals are hanging in the balance, including the Jacksonville JaguarsTrevor Lawrence, Detroit LionsJared Goff, Miami Dolphins' Tua Tagovailoa, and Green Bay PackersJordan Love. Here’s a snapshot of what is going on with each:

  • Lawrence’s reps and the Jaguars are in talks. He had his fifth-year option picked up this week, officially giving the Jaguars control through the 2025 season, at which point they could begin utilizing franchise tags to keep him in the fold through at least 2027. That’s not the plan. Lawrence has been reticent to push it publicly, but he and his representatives would like to get his deal done this offseason — as would the Jaguars. The numbers here will be key. There is no longer a presumption that Lawrence is a lock to sign a deal making him the highest paid player in the NFL, particularly after his injuries and struggles last season. It’s worth noting that Lawrence has a league-worst 60 turnovers over the past three seasons. While those aren’t all his fault, it’s a troubling issue when focused through the context of his rollback in 2023. When you talk to contract evaluators on both the agent and team side, Lawrence appears to slot at the edge of the top five, with his extension somewhere in the neighborhood of the five-year, $255 million pact signed by Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts in 2023. That would put Lawrence’s annual average value at $51 million, which is a sweet spot that factors in some projection of a higher ceiling still to come.

    One thing I want to make clear here: Not all agents are buying this. More than one agent shared the opinion that Lawrence’s negotiation should begin with him setting a contract record at quarterback and work from there. That's largely due to his standing as the centerpiece of the franchise and the team’s No. 1 overall draft pick in 2021. It’s an interesting argument that might foreshadow some sticky negotiations. Whatever the case, if and when the deal gets done, the target is going to be July, prior to training camp.

  • Goff and the Lions are in talks, but nothing is particularly close at this point. This one is going to be interesting — to the point that it’s possible Goff plays out his deal in 2024 and the Lions apply the franchise tag to him in 2025. That being an option isn’t a signal Detroit is taking a soft approach to commitment. It’s more a matter of the two sides finding the right intersection that recognizes Goff’s success versus where he stacks up with other QBs inside the top 10 contracts at the position. One agent who has done multiple high-end deals, including at quarterback, pointed to the four-year $180 million deal Kirk Cousins signed with Atlanta as a starting point that would need a solid premium added that's reflective of Goff’s hand in last season’s NFC title game run. That premium should put Goff solidly north of Cousins and Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray, tipping his average annual salary over the $50 million mark, with two full years of guaranteed money and a partial guarantee into Year 3 of the deal. If it’s less than that, Goff is giving the Lions a hometown discount.

  • Following the completion of the draft, Tagovailoa’s extension is now at the top of the priority list for the Dolphins. The heavy lifting hasn’t started in talks, but it’s expected to ramp up quickly. Contract evaluators believe the Cousins deal in Atlanta, plus a solid premium due to Tua’s age, provides a set of guardrails in negotiations. The question here will be the number of years and where the guarantees fall — as well as whether those guarantees stretch into a third year. It’s clear Miami is set on getting this one done by training camp. Like Goff, peg Tagovailoa’s deal as being in the neighborhood of $50 million-plus per season, reflecting the salary cap increasing at a higher than anticipated rate.

  • Due to the CBA’s contract guidelines, Love and the Packers aren’t actually eligible to sign an extension until Friday, due to the deal he signed last offseason not having been on the books for a full year yet and also having a slew of void years attached to it. Now that the draft is in the books and the calendar is turning to May, the two sides can run headlong into hammering an extension out. The floor on this one is going to be significant. With Love’s predecessor Aaron Rodgers departing with a final season salary north of $50 million, that number is expected to be the starting point for Love’s annual average value. You should be noticing a trend here with that $50-million-per-season shelf. If a quarterback is considered to be inside or near the top 10 in the league — or is young with modest success and high remaining upside — agents are aiming for that $50 million mark as a floor. Love will be no different. A franchise tag here isn’t out of the question, given that Love still has a limited track record of success. It should be noted that if a tag is used and Love’s second-half of 2023 materializes as his performance level in 2024, the next round of negotiations after 2024 will be for a deal that makes him the highest paid player in the NFL.

It didn’t happen before or during the NFL Draft, but you can see the setup coming for the 49ers: One of their top two wideouts isn’t likely to be on this team after the 2024 season.

With Brandon Aiyuk playing on his fifth-year option and Deebo Samuel nearing a manageable trapdoor exit in his contract next offseason, you can see where this is going. Particularly after San Francisco drafted wideout Ricky Pearsall in the first round and Jacob Cowing in the fourth last week. The question now becomes “who” between that pair of Aiyuk and Samuel.

Given the level of punishment Samuel has taken over the course of his career and Aiyuk being the younger player who is now ascending into his prime, Samuel would appear to be the player who is made available next offseason … or potentially even into training camp. It's something to keep an eye on in the interim: Whether Aiyuk reports for mandatory minicamp in June, which could foreshadow a holdout (or hold in) during training camp.

It appears the 49ers are preparing to part with one of its star receivers,Brandon Aiyuk (11) or Deebo Samuel in the near future, especially given who the team drafted. (Photo by Robin Alam/ISI Photos/Getty Images)
It appears the 49ers are preparing to part with one of their star receivers, Brandon Aiyuk (11) or Deebo Samuel in the near future, especially given who the team drafted. (Photo by Robin Alam/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Like Aiyuk, eyes will be on Minnesota Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson and Cincinnati Bengals wideout Tee Higgins. Jefferson is awaiting a monster contract extension that a few people inside the franchise believe should have been a bigger priority (and also gotten done) last offseason. One year later, the numbers have moved into the territory of Jefferson becoming the highest paid non-quarterback in NFL history. That expectation didn’t lessen after the draft, with the Vikings needing their best offensive weapon on the field to help along the development of rookie quarterback J.J. McCarthy. If there’s not progress on getting this deal done, it would not be a surprise to see Jefferson skip the team’s mandatory minicamp and then engage in a hold-in come training camp.

Higgins, on the other hand, didn’t have anything close to what his camp believed was a suitable contract extension offer prior to the Bengals applying the franchise tag to him. That makes it far less likely that even some significant holdout pressure could result in a deal getting done. If anything, a holdout by Higgins in mandatory minicamp and into training camp would be geared toward forcing a trade. Right now, the Bengals don’t have plans to make that kind of move. That means either Higgins shows up and plays out the tag, or digs in and creates enough of a scene to force a trade that appears very unlikely.

Rice will eventually be suspended by the NFL for a violation of the personal conduct policy, triggered by his road racing crash in Dallas earlier this offseason. That is not in dispute. The question is what the length of suspension will be and when it will happen. And that is entirely in the hands of the legal process.

Rice is facing eight felony counts related to the incident — one count of collision involving serious bodily injury, one count of aggravated assault, and six counts of collision involving injury. Of the eight counts, the most serious from a legal standing, is the charge tied to aggravated assault.

The presumption is that Rice’s legal team will eventually seek a plea deal that could ultimately be aided by any compensation he provides to the crash victims. The important part to understand here is that the legal process is just getting underway and could take months if not longer to snake toward some manner of trial. Delays in that process, which also always come into play, could push a resolution all the way into 2025.

That means Rice may not face any NFL discipline this season.

That said, it’s coming down the pipeline, with the measure of severity expected to be impacted by whatever comes out of the legal process and any measures that Rice and his legal team use to resolve his charges.