The Trey Lance trade was about minimal Cowboys upside and a Jerry Jones ego stroke — not Dak Prescott’s future

When the trade first went down, the reaction across NFL front offices to Trey Lance’s new home was similar to the reaction of fans and analysts. At the top of his pro personnel scouting checklist, Lance needed on-field snaps for development, and wasn’t remotely ready to contribute to a team residing inside a contending window.

So why did the Dallas Cowboys come calling with a fourth-round draft pick — with zero qualifiers — that no other team was willing to put on the table?

“Your guess is as good as mine,” one AFC general manager said. “They can’t want him to start this season. He’s still a third-string QB on a good roster — an even deeper third string in Dallas, because [Sam] Darnold hasn’t played for the [49ers] and Cooper Rush has won some important games in Dallas. Rush has been in their program for years. If the evaluation is fair, Trey has to be pretty far behind Cooper before you even get to how far he is behind Dak.”

This wasn’t a one-off opinion. There was a common theme among multiple front-office executives who responded to questions about the Cowboys’ logic. But there is some nuance to be found when it comes to how the trade might impact starting quarterback Dak Prescott, the role team owner Jerry Jones played in the decision and how the Cowboys can realize some value with the move down the line. That’s where the meat of this acquisition can be found. So let’s explore that.

The tangible impact on Dak Prescott

From an outside optics perspective, it puts a ding in the veneer. The significance of that blemish is a matter of argument, but the reality is Prescott had questions about the move brought to his doorstep, not to mention speculation about how it could impact his extension negotiations. Beyond that, we also were left to interpret what it means that ownership didn’t clue him in on the trade. And finally, Prescott lost a friend in the quarterbacks room who he was close with in Will Grier.

Yes, Prescott had the awkward moment of sorting through the trade with reporters. But he’s been in this franchise for seven years and has always been adept at handling the clunky way that Jones goes about his business. And while Prescott lost Grier, a source familiar with the Cowboys told Yahoo Sports that Grier was likely going to be cut anyway. Further, Prescott isn’t remotely worried about Lance as a teammate, who arrives without any personality baggage.

As one source said of Lance, “He’s a good kid and that only helps.”

The bigger issue is the speculation about Prescott’s contract negotiations. Here is the situation in a nutshell, from people who will be involved in the extension: Neither side is worried about the extension and the general feel is that barring an on-field implosion, it’s going to be a no-brainer negotiation for both sides.

“That’s media [stuff],” one AFC general manager said, referring to the potential for Lance to impact Prescott’s extension. “It’s not even logical. You can say, ‘Well, if this happens or that happens’ but that’s just talk. That’s not what’s real. For him to push in any way Dak, he would have to play. And if you’re playing him over Dak by choice, then you’re not extending Dak anyway. Even an injury — I don’t think Lance would start over [Cooper Rush] either. … Lance already couldn’t beat out Jimmy [Garoppolo], Brock Purdy and Sam Darnold. He fell from two to three [on the depth chart] and got traded for probably a late fourth [rounder]. If he even developed into a Dak a few years from now, that would be a pretty big win. So there’s really no threat right now. How Dak plays this season is what matters for his extension.”

The Cowboys' trade for Trey Lance (15) doesn't mean that much for Dak Prescott, but there is a sideshow element to it. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
The Cowboys' trade for Trey Lance (15) doesn't mean that much for Dak Prescott, but there is a sideshow element to it. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

As Jerry Jones declares victory, here's what he isn't saying

Of course, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a sideshow aspect to all of this. If Lance really is nothing more than a third-string quarterback with no prospects of pushing Prescott, then his addition is a frivolous ego pump by Jones that adds only a distracting element to the mix. It's an aspect that is already palpable, given the pressing questions about the lack of involvement in the trade from head coach Mike McCarthy and the lack of a heads-up for Prescott. The distraction is there already — but the only payoff thus far has been Jones telling the world that Dallas had a second-round grade on Lance in 2021 and got him for a fourth-round pick in 2023. It was a win Jones was excited to point out, regardless if the actual fit made any real sense.

The part of the math Jones leaves out is that Lance had a second-round grade on the Dallas draft board before anyone knew what he looked like taking NFL reps. With that factored into the mix, the rest of the NFL wasn’t willing to offer a fourth-round pick for him last week which basically means that Lance’s current draft value isn’t higher than a fifth-round pick to other interested teams.

That’s not to say Dallas risked much in the trade. Nor is it to say the downside is minimal. If anything, there might be some value to be found. With Rush having two years left on his deal, Lance could develop enough in practice and next year’s offseason passing program to make Rush expendable. He could also play well enough in the 2024 preseason to make himself a viable free agent heading into the 2025 offseason — which could result in Dallas recouping a compensatory pick down the line.

If we’re ranking scenarios, those are much more achievable outcomes than Lance somehow stealing Prescott’s job without a catastrophic run of quarterback injuries — not to mention Lance suddenly becoming the player he has never been in any other opportunity. Those long-odds developments won’t stop the speculation. How good Lance looks at any given moment will likely be measured against how bad Prescott looks in every possible instance.

But one year from now, the clarity will likely look like this: Prescott will have his extension in place, Lance will be far behind him on the depth chart, and the most impactful part of this entire trade will be that Jerry Jones did it at all, with so little chance to achieve the upside that made the distraction worth it.