When the Cowboys signed quarterback Andy Dalton in May, some thought he was a contingency plan for the team not being able to re-sign Dak Prescott beyond his franchise-tagged 2020 season. In reality, Dallas was simply looking for a major upgrade behind Prescott, who had started every game of his NFL career until going down with a season-ending ankle injury against the Giants in Week 5.
Now Dalton, the longtime Bengal, will return to starting status at age 32, back near where he starred in college at TCU before being selected in the second round of the 2011 draft. When Cincinnati released Dalton late in free agency, only after making its No. 1 overall pick of Joe Burrow official, Dallas wasted little time, signing Dalton two days later on May 2.
With the Bengals delaying the inevitable with Dalton, they lowered his value on the veteran QB market. Here’s a look at the contract the Cowboys gave Dallton and the potential for re-signing him in 2021.
Andy Dalton contract details
Dalton settled for a significant drop in salary from what he was used in Cincinnati. Back in 2014, Dalton signed a six-year, $96 million extension that was worth up to $115 million in incentives. His average annual salary was $16 million, a number that was rather modest given the rapidly increasing value of QB contracts around the league.
The Cowboys gave Dalton a one-year, $3 million deal. That still was more than Cam Newton, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft, eventually got from the Patriots — one year, $1.75 million — after his release from the Panthers. Unlike Newton, Dalton got all of his bargain deal guaranteed and $2 million of the $3 million was his signing bonus.
Andy Dalton’s contract incentives
This is where Dalton’s contract gets more interesting now that he’s replacing Prescott as the starter from Week 6 through Week 17 — and maybe beyond. That’s 11 regular-season games, which is significant to increasing Dalton’s earning power. Dalton can more than double his base salary of $3 million, to $7 million should he hit all the incentives.
Dalton, barring injury himself, will now get more than 50 percent of the regular-season snaps at quarterback. If he also helps the Cowboys still win the NFC East without Prescott — and they’re the still the favorite to do so — he would add $1 million.
Assuming he’s still healthy in the playoffs and starting vs. rookie seventh-rounder Ben DiNucci and journeyman Garrett Gilbert, Dalton will be in position for more bonuses. With two playoff wins, or presumably getting the Cowboys to the NFC title game, Dalton would earn another $1 million, or $500,000 each for the wild-card and divisional rounds.
There’s another $2 million available for Dalton should he both lead the Cowboys to the NFC championship ($750,000) and victory in Super Bowl 55 ($1.25 million).
With the serious nature of Prescott’s injury and should Dalton perform well in his place, he’s guaranteed to return as the No. 2 with a new contract. Should Dalton turn supersub, it would be become harder to both re-sign him and either franchise-tag Prescott again or sign Prescott to a high-end QB deal.
Andy Dalton’s future contract potential
After Ryan Tannehill, signed as a backup in 2019, took advantage of Marcus Mariota’s ineffectiveness to lift the Titans into the playoffs and help them win two postseason games, the former Dolphin got rewarded big-time, signing a 4-year, $118 million deal to keep him from leaving in 2020 free agency.
The difference with the Cowboys is that Prescott was playing at a high level before he went down and is only not playing because of injury. It’s a stretch to think Dalton will play well enough to make the Cowboys move on from Prescott and give Dalton a Tannehill-like $29.5 million a season. Consider that the Cowboys franchise-tagged Prescott to only a little more than that, $31.4 million all guaranteed in 2020.
The more likely scenario is that Dalton plays at a solid replacement level because of the Cowboys’ strong offensive supporting cast of offensive linemen and skill players, but he still feels short of the spectacular ceiling Prescott can provide from quarterback. Should Dalton pull off what Nick Foles did with the Eagles in 2017, ending up as Super Bowl MVP, he still isn’t a good bet to be preferred over Prescott.
The Eagles ended up looking smart for signing Foles to a two-year deal in 2017. Foles ended up with $11 million, with $7 million guaranteed at signing. With his strong value behind Carson Wentz, Foles was able to cash in during the 2019 offseason, with a 4-year, $88 million free-agent deal from the Jaguars that included $50 million guaranteed.
Unless Dalton falls flat and the Cowboys’ offense goes in the tank, he’ll have a good place in the NFL in 2021, either getting a nice raise to remain the No. 2 behind Prescott or a much bigger spike with a chance to serve as veteran starting bridge QB elsewhere.