If the Cowboys are doing some mental math around the office right now, it’s perfectly understandable.
In a league where it’s never too early to stress about the future, this team has heavy financial lifting to do in the coming months, and at some of the game’s most important positions.
Sure, there are current problems to be solved in Dallas. The left guard spot looks a bit dicey, and the Cowboys don’t currently have a kicker. But for the most part, these are issues that can be solved in training camp.
Much more pressing than that are the pay days rapidly approaching for several key pieces – most notably, CeeDee Lamb and Trevon Diggs. The 2020 draft picks are eligible for a contract extension for the first time in their careers, having completed three NFL seasons. With both players reaching All-Pro status before the age of 25, it’s a good bet they’ll be looking to cash in.
Last week’s 10th annual Reliant Home Run Derby emphasized that point. With the NFL draft in the rearview mirror, those contract negotiations became a central talking point. Both Lamb and Diggs offered plenty in the way of optimism, albeit with few specifics. “Dallas is somewhere I’ve always wanted to be. I don’t see myself really wearing any other jersey,” Lamb said. “I don’t really want to get into too much detail on that, but I’m definitely excited for the future.”
Added Diggs: “Hopefully something gets figured out. I love Dallas. I love being here. So, I don’t know. We’ll see.”
Diggs’ situation offers more intrigue at the current moment. The Cowboys pick up the fifth-year option on Lamb’s rookie contract right before the draft, locking him in for the 2024 season on a $17.9 million salary.
They don’t have the same luxury with Diggs, whose status as a second-round pick doesn’t come with that option. That leaves Dallas with two likely options: work out a long-term extension with Diggs prior to March 2024, or franchise tag him for a cost of roughly $18 million next year.
That sounds simple enough, though the process rarely ever feels that way when a player is gunning for the top of the market.
Learn this factoid now because it’s an important one. Since Diggs entered the league in 2020, no one in the NFL has tallied more interceptions. With 17 picks for his career, Diggs is tied for the league lead over that time span, sharing the honor with Chargers corner J.C. Jackson. Among cornerbacks, only Dolphins All-Pro Xavien Howard, with 16, is close.
Almost as important: Diggs doesn’t even turn 25 until Week 3 of the 2023 season.
Did Cowboys close the gap on Eagles this offseason?
The Dallas Cowboys have been busy this offseason, signing Stephon Gilmore and trading for WR Brandin Cooks. They also drafted former Michigan DT Mazi Smith with the 26th pick. However, their NFC East division rival Philadelphia Eagles have also been busy. Emmanuel Acho, Joy Taylor, LeSean McCoy and David Helman debate whether the Cowboys closed the gap on Philly this offseason.
By those numbers alone, Diggs is justified in seeking a bank-breaking contract. Fittingly, it was Jackson who just signed a five-year, $82.5 million deal with the Chargers in 2022 off the strength of an eight-interception performance during his final year in New England.
Looking at the market right now, Jackson’s deal feels like a bargain. In the time since he signed, the Browns extended Denzel Ward to the tune of five years and $100 million, and the Packers secured Jaire Alexander for four years, $84 million.
No two deals are the same, and it’s even harder to predict guarantees. But if the Cowboys want to retain Diggs for a similar amount of time, it’s a good guess the asking price will be north of $100 million — or at the very least, above $21 million per season, depending on the length of the deal. And with Diggs having been healthy for 49 of 53 possible games to this point in his career, he’d be justified in asking for a healthy chunk of that money to be guaranteed.
Now, would the Cowboys be willing to do that deal? I’m interested to find out. For all the accolades he’s received, there are those who wonder about the degree to which he freelances in coverage, or his consistency as a tackler. Still, in a sport where takeaways have such a drastic impact on outcomes, Diggs gets them. It’s a fantastic trump card for him to keep in his back pocket.
Whatever decision they reach, the Cowboys would be smart to make one by September. Re-signing Diggs this summer would give the Cowboys an extra season, the fourth year of his rookie deal, to work with. That added time would give them flexibility to lessen his impact on the salary cap.
If not, then a high-cost game of tag likely awaits in the offseason.
There are two factors that lessen the suspense around Lamb, at least slightly. As previously noted, Lamb’s fifth-year option gives the Cowboys the gift of time. Even if contract talks drag out with their star receiver, they don’t have to worry about a potential franchise tag until March 2025.
The second bit is the purple elephant in the room by the name of Justin Jefferson. By any objective measure, Lamb has been a bonafide hit since being drafted No. 17 overall three years ago. It’s still undeniably true that the guy picked five spots later, Jefferson, has staked his claim as the best receiver in the NFL at the age of just 23.
Jefferson leads all NFL receivers with 4,825 yards over the last three years. He’s been named an All-Pro every year of his career, and he won NFL Offensive Player of the Year off the strength of his 128 catches and 1,809 yards in 2023.
If there’s a receiver in the league with the credentials to topple Tyreek Hill’s league-best figure of $30 million per year, it’s Jefferson. That could be important for Lamb — not because he’s likely to hit that mark, but because of what might come after.
Per Spotrac, Lamb’s current market value sits around $23 million per year, which would slot him in nicely with the likes of Deebo Samuel, D.K. Metcalf and Terry McLaurin, recent signees from the draft class before him.
If Jefferson succeeds in resetting the receiver market, though, that value could go up. It’s hard to imagine Lamb could surpass the $30 million mark. But he has been named to two Pro Bowls and an All-Pro team in just three years of work, and he only turned 24 last month. With extensions for the likes of Ja’Marr Chase and Jaylen Waddle possible as soon as next spring, Lamb’s eventual price could easily stretch beyond current expectations.
Factoring in the nearly $18 million already owed to him, it’s a virtual certainty that Lamb’s extension will surpass the $100 million mark. The final figure could be swayed heavily by the other top receiver in his draft class.
Needless to say, it’s understandable if the Cowboys are eyeing their finances this summer. After all, this doesn’t even include the fact that Dak Prescott is halfway through his current deal, or that Micah Parsons is eligible for a record-breaking deal of his own starting in January.
These are good problems to have, but that doesn’t make them any less expensive.
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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Source: FOX Sports