Tick tock goes the big blue clock. As the NFL deadline approaches for teams to decide if they'll apply the franchise tag to any particular player on their roster for the 2020 season, i.e., March 10, the Dallas Cowboys find themselves racing against time to get a deal done with quarterback Dak Prescott. The club wants to avoid using the tag on Prescott if it all possible, but will invoke it to protect their investment -- the goal being to use it as a placeholder -- if need be.

After months of back-and-forth that included the Cowboys submitting multiple offers to Prescott, including one that tap danced around the $35 million per year mark -- sources tell CBS Sports -- the two sides are now engaged in driven discussions that could see the two-time Pro Bowler finally agree to terms before mid-March rolls around. That said, if for some reason things drag out a bit longer, the next mission will be to see a deal done before the beginning of the team's offseason program.

Otherwise, don't expect to see Prescott in the building.

With Mike McCarthy now secured and looking to install West Coast tweaks to Kellen Moore's offensive scheme and language, it's paramount the Cowboys convince Prescott to be available from Day One to prevent any hiccups in the consumption. And while everyone outside the building is laser-focused on just how much the 26-year-old will be paid, that's not the only sticking point in these negotiations. A separate source tells CBS Sports the team approached Prescott in 2019 with a deal that could span six years or more -- hoping to marry it with the six-year extension awarded last summer to All-Pro running back Ezekiel Elliott -- but Prescott wasn't so keen on signing it.

To do so means he would lessen the chances of being able to negotiate another big-money deal down the road under the terms of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement and, as such, he'd want financial concessions made by the Cowboys right now if he were to relinquish his ability to renegotiate later. Those concessions would likely include more guaranteed money up front and an uptick in the average annual salary (AAS), considering the latter would be lessened by a longer contractual term. Prescott wants something closer to the traditional 4-5 year range, but the Cowboys are having nightmares about revisiting these talks in 2023, and with Prescott potentially having an NFC Championship or Super Bowl appearance (win?) on his resume.

All of these things are expected to be hammered out soon, but time will tell if it happens by March 10. 

So, yes, the deal for Prescott will be completed at some point this offseason and, no, the Cowboys have never had a single discussion about moving on and signing Tom Brady -- nor will they. With that being the case, avoiding the tag on Prescott carries several additional benefits, which adds to the Cowboys' already pre-established sense of urgency regarding their quarterback. 

1. Amari Cooper

Several sources confirm to CBS Sports the team is prepared to exercise the franchise tag on Cooper and that's a big reason they don't want to use it on Prescott. Talks with Cooper remain stalled at the time this article goes to print, and mainly because the Cowboys want to lock up Prescott on a long-term deal first before they move on to priority item No. 2. 

Discussions with Cooper are currently far behind where they are with Prescott, making tagging the wide receiver more easily palatable. 

The problem is obvious, though, because the clock doesn't stop ticking simply because they're currently all-in on the quarterback negotiations. Ironically, like Prescott, Cooper could've secured a deal in 2019 in Dallas, but instead opted to play the market and bet big on himself during the season. Unlike Prescott, however, and despite an overall strong year that landed him another Pro Bowl nod, Cooper battled a list of injuries that led to moments of production hiatuses over the course of the season. They'll award him credit for starting all 16 games, but demerits for not actually playing in all 16, having been removed from early on in a game or two and in key moments during others. 

Maybe it was for health reasons. Maybe it was issues with the coaching, as Cooper himself hinted at in December. Maybe it was both.

Either way, although the Cowboys would like to get Cooper to agree to a long-term deal, they're also perfectly fine using the franchise tag on him to keep him put for the 2020 season. It wouldn't simply be a placeholder, either. For while a deal could still be struck by the aforementioned mid-July deadline, and if one isn't, they are prepared to keep one eye on him and the other receivers in the 2021 NFL Draft. 

The contingency plan is made that much more feasible by the emergence of Michael Gallup, but the Cowboys want both on the field at the same time. The expectation is they will be in 2020, barring the use of the non-exclusive tag on Cooper and a decision to let him walk in exchange for two first-round picks. 

The bottom line is when it comes to Cooper, there's a Plan A, a Plan B, and a Plan C. When it comes to Prescott though, there's really only a Plan A, and the quicker they execute it, the more options they'll have on Cooper.

2. Byron Jones

It's a trickle-down effect the Cowboys are hoping for here because if there's no franchise tag needed on Prescott, they can use it on Cooper; and that means the transition tag will still be available for Jones. But it's key to note that line of thinking comes with a caveat because the transition tag would only be used as a valuation device in the open market -- giving other teams a chance to make an offer to Jones before the Cowboys get to exercise their right to match it and retain him. 

The team is prepared for their discussions with the All-Pro cornerback to go one of several ways. If they're forced to exhaust the franchise tag on Prescott and the transition tag on Cooper, Jones will enter the open market and likely start a bidding war, of which the Cowboys will not participate. They'll make their firm offer and stand by it, willing to lose Jones in the process with an eye on possibly double-dipping at the defensive back position in this year's draft. 

Keeping him in tow is something they'd love to do, but they won't set the market with him, and I'm told his future is indirectly -- if not directly -- tied to what happens on the defensive line. If McCarthy and new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan view an elite edge rusher as more important than a shutdown corner (and they will), Jones is staring at the short end of the stick -- even if it's not his fault the Cowboys flexed him like a Slinky for the first three years of his career. 

And while the fact is Jones is the best cornerback the team has fielded since Terence Newman, they'll curb his value in-house because of a lack of takeaways, something Nolan demands going forward

3. Robert Quinn

When it comes to Quinn, sources tell CBS Sports the Cowboys will make a strong run at keeping him around. The All-Pro pass rusher had a resurgent year in 2019 after being traded from the Miami Dolphins, delivering a team-high 11.5 sacks en route to unrestricted free agency. It's not expected that the Cowboys will tag Quinn, which is sort of a gentleman's agreement I suppose, considering there's a great relationship between the two sides and owner Jerry Jones respects the fact Quinn has never once had a chance at free agency in his near-decade long career.

For that reason, the presence of any tag doesn't truly matter regarding Quinn, and the Cowboys are instead going to try their hand at winning him outright. 

They'll have a projected $90 million in cap space and can push it to near $100 million in room with default roster attrition and possible pay cuts -- my sense being veteran defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford will be amicable to reducing his $8 million salary in 2020, as one example -- reiterating the reality the Cowboys can afford to pay Prescott, Cooper, Jones and Quinn market value or more and still have a hefty chunk remaining for Tier-B free agents and draft signings. 

It's not about affordability. It never was. It probably won't ever be again. So stop perpetuating that lazy myth, for your own sanity and thank yourself later. It's all about value assessment in 2020, and that's where Jones could lose out to Quinn in what's described to me as a "tug-of-war" regarding their standing with the Cowboys. 

Prescott is the skeleton key

Bringing it back full circle to Prescott is simple, because the sooner they sign the quarterback, the faster they can get to work on trying to keep a player like Quinn, because other teams are already circling the wagon to get his asking price -- a source confirmed. If talks with Prescott drag out, not only will the ripple effect from using the franchise tag complicate talks with Cooper and the decision on Jones, but it'll also put the Cowboys behind the curve on Quinn, time-wise. 

It's not a matter of if Prescott will be signed, though, because everyone wants it to happen badly enough to get it done. It's a matter of when, for how much and for how long. When the latter three questions get answered, so will those attached to other key players.

The chances of any major move landing before Prescott is slim-to-none, but March 10 waits for no man.


Sean Lee

I've spoken to several sources with knowledge of the situation and what Lee wants is to simply gauge his value on the open market as an unrestricted free agent, and to get an idea of what sort of playing time he'd get outside of Dallas in 2020. 

His lean is still very much toward a return to the Cowboys following an overall promising season wherein he re-established his brand as an impact starter, and the team has made it clear they have a seat for him at the table. The only hitch in the wagon is he'd be viewed as insurance for a returning Leighton Vander Esch, and not an incumbent starter, the SAM (strongside) role notwithstanding. 

Don't count out a reunion here. It's possible Lee leaves his beloved Cowboys, but it won't be easy to pry him away.

Jason Witten 

Unlike Lee, Witten has not been offered anything he deems attractive enough to remain in Dallas. 

The future Hall of Fame tight end returned from the broadcasting booth in 2019 but with uneven play that mixed great catches with unsettling drops, and the usual inability to get yards after the catch while backup Blake Jarwin put on a show nearly every time he touched the ball. McCarthy has eyes on Jarwin and a possible addition in free agency and/or the NFL draft, and Witten still views himself as a starter. Thus, the disconnect that leaves him willing to leave Dallas and possibly even put on the rival blue of the New York Giants -- in a reunion with Jason Garrett -- because all signs point to a setting of the sun on Witten's time as default starter with the Cowboys.

Witten told me in December his decision would be "quick", but it's now the middle of February and counting. That's a tell-tale sign talks between him and the new coaching regime didn't go as swimmingly as he thought they would. 

Dez Bryant

The team's all-time leader in receiving touchdowns wants back in, and with a new coach at the helm, there's a chance he might get his wish. This is something no one could've predicted during the toxic divorce following the 2017 season, but no more Scott Linehan or Jason Garrett opens the door for a possible reconciliation between Bryant and the Cowboys -- a team he lists as his No. 1 "dream" landing spot this coming season. His relationship with owner Jerry Jones has never once wavered, but there was much to be repaired between himself and team exec Stephen Jones, and Bryant knows it.

That's why he recently reached out to the latter directly recently to make his case -- now fully healed from his torn Achilles suffered in 2018 and on more solid ground following battles with depression and anxiety -- and the younger Jones didn't turn his back when nudged by the three-time Pro Bowl receiver. Instead, Jones kept the door open for a possible renewing of vows, and Bryant is helping himself by no longer wanting to be the focal point of an NFL offense. He's fine simply being a red zone target, and is also willing to replace Jason Witten at tight end

The Cowboys front office is admittedly intrigued, and while nothing is imminent, they'll keep Bryant in mind as McCarthy works through his first free agency with the team. With some players lobbying the club to give Bryant another go, I'm told the odds of them doing so are a solid 50/50 right now.

Keep an eye on this one as well, folks.