The big question looming over the Dallas Cowboys organization is who the quarterback will be in 2021. Will Dak Prescott be back? Is it possible general manager and owner Jerry Jones will pull off a big trade for a new franchise signal-caller?
We shouldn’t be surprised by whatever Jones does with America’s Team as Dallas struggles for relevance in the NFL amid two straight non-winning seasons.
Let’s rank the best options Dallas has under center for 2021 in terms of team fit and caliber of player.
Dallas Cowboys quarterback: Top options to lead offense in 2021
1. Swing an epic trade for Deshaun Watson
The reportedly disgruntled Houston Texans superstar led the NFL in passing during a lost 2020 campaign. Imagine what he could do with a strong receiving corps like the Cowboys have with Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and CeeDee Lamb? It’s a pretty scary proposition for opponents to ponder.
Watson is a top-five quarterback, and although Prescott has played at a high level and developed into a fine player in his own right, he’s not in Watson’s league. Depending on what the contract situation looks like, any number of draft assets and current players — even Lamb, or other younger foundational pieces — are worth the price for Dallas to land the Texans signal-caller.
If there’s a continued reluctance to pay Prescott big money, there should be no hesitation to reconstruct the roster to fit around Watson. He’d instantly make the Cowboys must-see TV, and would be with an iconic franchise worth of his world-class ability. Houston is obviously a mess, and Watson wouldn’t have to move far to play for his new team in this situation.
Considering the numerous injuries to the Texans receiving corps this season and the fact that Watson played so well without his former No. 1 wideout in DeAndre Hopkins, it’s evident Houston’s face of the franchise can deal with adversity and circumstances that aren’t ideal.
What are you waiting for, Mr. Jones? Get new Houston GM Nick Caserio on the phone and make the splashiest move imaginable to revitalize the proud Cowboys franchise! Otherwise, other QB-needy teams with first-class organizations like the Patriots, 49ers and others could well swoop in and win the Watson sweepstakes.
2. Re-sign Dak Prescott to long-term contract
For some baffling reason, Jones has refused to give a ringing endorsement to Prescott, who’s one of the few recent Cowboys draft picks who’ve been a true revelation.
No one saw Prescott coming as a rookie fourth-rounder, yet he supplanted veteran Tony Romo for the starting role right when he got his first opportunity to seize the job. Since then, the knock on Prescott has been his lackluster record against playoff-caliber teams, as he’s struggled to pedestrian numbers versus elite competition.
However, before going down with a season-ending injury in 2020, Prescott was aflame out of the gates, averaging 371 yards passing per game in five starts as the Cowboys’ woeful defense did its best to sabotage the team’s chances at the postseason as quickly as possible, ultimately leading to the firing of defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.
Also worth bearing in mind is the fact that it was only Prescott’s second season under play-caller Kellen Moore, and first under new coach Mike McCarthy.
It certainly appeared as though the presumptive QB of the future in Dallas was blossoming and elevating his game to a new level in Year 2 under Moore’s guidance. Now, the question is whether Jones and Co. want to commit top-flight quarterback money to Prescott.
Given the prior reluctance and the fact that Andy Dalton had the Cowboys in the hunt to win the NFC East in Week 17, don’t expect Prescott to get paid. He probably deserves a chance with a franchise with a fully-committed vision to building around him.
3. Steal Matthew Stafford from Detroit Lions
In order to bail from Detroit, Stafford may need to rework his contract to facilitate a trade sooner rather than later. Otherwise, if the Lions wait until June 1 or after to deal him away, per Over the Cap, they’ll be able to save $20 million in cap space while eating $13 million in dead money.
Either way, there’s a chance Stafford will come at a discounted cap hit from his projected $33 million figure for 2021 regardless of where he ultimately lands. Amid another regime change in Detroit and with his top three receivers all hitting the free agent market, it’s unlikely Stafford is going to want to stick around after so many years of disappointing service for the Lions.
Stafford has never benefited from a strong, consistent rushing attack throughout his NFL career and deserves better. By going to Dallas, he’d at least have a talented tailback in Ezekiel Elliott to help complement him, not to mention tons of offensive weaponry as we’ve outlined in the prior sections.
How neat would it be for Stafford to play for America’s Team with so much firepower around him after toiling away in Detroit for more than a decade? He’d certainly be the best quarterback in the NFC East going away, and despite needing to adjust to a new system, he may well prove to be an upgrade from Prescott in the end.
Not for nothing, either: Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore used to be a teammate of Stafford’s with the Lions, so there’s a built-in relationship already there that makes their pairing very logical indeed.
4. Select Trey Lance in 2021 NFL Draft
Given the state of the roster, Dallas may not be willing to trade all the way up to No. 3 overall with the Miami Dolphins. That’s probably what it’d take to land one of the consensus top quarterback prospects. However, a more modest maneuver, or simply staying put at No. 10 overall, probably positions the Cowboys to land Lance.
Based on the way this list is going and the fact that Lance is the consensus fourth-rated quarterback in the 2021 class, it may seem like Dallas is “settling” for a lesser player.
That’s not necessarily the case. Lance just happens to be a less-known commodity due to the fact that he hails from an FCS school. Look no further than Romo to find the last non-major college football program the Cowboys mined to find their long-term answer at the position.
Although it’d be ideal to land Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, or Justin Fields, all three of them are probably beyond Dallas’ grasp. Lance is quite an appealing alternative. He’s a phenomenal athlete who runs like a true ball-carrier in the open field, yet avoids taking punishing hits as a runner and in the pocket.
During the 2019 campaign, Lance threw 28 touchdowns to zero interceptions, ran for 1,100 yards and 14 scores, and led the Bison to a national championship. Can you do much better than that? He’s 6-foot-3, 224 pounds, has a rocket arm and can throw with touch and accuracy to all areas of the field.
Other than lingering on his first read at times and the previously cited concern of playing at the FCS level, there aren’t many holes to poke in Lance’s game. In any other year that wasn’t as loaded with fairly surefire franchise quarterbacks, he’d be drafted hire.
It’s very possible Dallas could find a diamond in the rough if the front office pulls the trigger on Lance with its top-10 pick.
5. Extract Sam Darnold from New York Jets
Under the guidance of alleged offensive guru Adam Gase, Darnold regressed. He’s been through a general manager and coaching change since being selected third overall in the 2018 draft. Until this past year, the pass protection for Darnold wasn’t ideal, nor were the offensive weapons around him, and his 2020 receiving corps was constantly banged-up.
Darnold is likely to be on the trade block. He has a live arm, can escape the pocket with underrated athleticism and is good enough to be a winning quarterback. The problem is, he hasn’t been able to show it as a member of the Jets.
Even with the Cowboys’ perpetual dysfunction, they aren’t lacking in talent on the offensive side of the ball. If Dallas’ stars on the offensive line like Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and La’el Collins can return healthy in 2021, whichever QB is under center will benefit greatly, as will Elliott and the running game.
Should the o-line band break up and Dallas give up on Smith at left tackle, even Martin and Collins would be enough to help Darnold feel safer than he has at any time in New York. He could get the ball out quickly and decisively to Cooper, Gallup and Lamb, while still occasionally working his broken-play magic. The key will simply be limiting turnovers, which have plagued Darnold since his college days at USC. He’s thrown 39 interceptions and has 20 fumbles in 38 career starts.
The Jets are picking second in the 2021 draft and are likely to start over with a new quarterback under a new head coach. It shouldn’t take much more than a third- or fourth-round pick — at most a second-rounder — for the Cowboys to land the 23-year-old Darnold either before, during or after the draft.
One thing’s for certain: Darnold is the most cost-effective, active NFL player on this list, and still has tons of upside to explore.