Could Trey Lance be Cowboys’ best backup plan for Dak Prescott?

What if the most important player for the Dallas Cowboys doesn’t start a game in 2024?

If this sounds silly, bear with me. Because it’s hard not to daydream about the future given the Cowboys’ present circumstances. This week marks the beginning of their OTAs, serving as another reminder that Dak Prescott inches closer to the final year of his contract. 

Predictably, Prescott spoke to reporters about the NFL’s most noteworthy contract negotiation on Wednesday. The next three months could be quite the countdown to see if the Cowboys can sign him for the long term before the season starts.

But we’ve talked ad nauseam about Prescott, so let’s shift the focus — specifically to one of the guys taking reps behind him.

This summer will offer the first real look at Trey Lance as a Cowboy, given that he arrived from San Francisco at the end of last year’s training camp and did not participate in any games in 2023.

By the sounds of it, we’re going to get an extended look. Talking to reporters on Wednesday, Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy acknowledged the desire to see Lance get plenty of work in the coming months, including the team’s three preseason games.

“We’re trying to get him as many reps as we can throughout this offseason program, and he will take a large part of the preseason,” McCarthy said. “That’s the design. Him and I talk about preseason quite often, because that’s what we’re building towards.”

That’s interesting on two levels. The easy one is that things are shaping up for a backup quarterback competition in camp. Cooper Rush has one year remaining on his contract and has been the team’s backup since 2021, posting a 5-1 record when getting a chance to start. To be fair to him, Rush has fended off endless speculation about his job security and performed admirably when given the chance.

Still, Lance retains the natural ability and athleticism that got him drafted No. 3 overall back in 2021, and the Cowboys also spent a fourth-round pick to acquire him, knowing full well he also had just one year remaining on his contract. Lance is the reason an exciting rookie running back isn’t on this roster, so it’s only logical the Cowboys will give him every opportunity to help them.

From the sounds of it, Lance is taking all the right steps to be ready for that opportunity. Long lauded for his work ethic, Prescott had high praise for the effort Lance has put in. 

“He works his ass off. He’s pushing me,” Prescott said. “I’m somebody that, I don’t like to let other people get more reps than me, and Trey is the person I need to watch, because he’s trying to get up there on the rep count. That’s a testament to him and how much he’s putting into this. I’ve seen it. He’s gotten better. He can play.”

Should the Cowboys extend Dak Prescott?

Given Prescott’s own experience rising up the depth chart as a young quarterback, that carries some weight. And on top of that, with a year to sit and learn how things work in Dallas, Lance seems to echo that confidence.

“I feel great about where I’m at,” Lance told reporters this week. “Continuing to get better, continuing to learn and just continuing to be a better quarterback.”

This is all a sufficiently juicy training camp storyline on its own, but the bigger picture is what makes this truly interesting. 

At this moment, Lance is probably the Cowboys’ best realistic option for 2025 if Prescott departs in free agency.

Yes, it’s true that his contract also expires in March. But with just four career starts to his name, the Cowboys could likely afford to sign him for a far lower price than a typical starting quarterback. Given the time and resources they’ll have sunk into developing him, not to mention his familiarity with the organization, it might be the place that offers him the best chance at a starting job anytime soon — provided Prescott is somewhere else. 

And again, Lance still possesses the arm strength and athleticism that made him a high draft pick — and he just turned 24.

The only question is obvious: Can he play? 

Will Dak Prescott still be the Cowboys’ QB in 2025?

The Cowboys would be smart to find out, and it sounds like they’re going to. As McCarthy noted, young quarterbacks need reps, and the goal should be to get Lance as many as possible in camp and preseason. It might not measure up to their All-Pro starter, but it’s a solid backup plan.

And it doesn’t sound like it’ll bother Prescott, a longtime proponent of friendly competition.

“As long as he is getting better, I promise you I’m getting better,” Prescott said. “I encourage it. I hope he makes people think. I know where I’ll be and I know who I am. I’m confident in the person and player that I am. I hope he does. I hope he pushes me.”

It’s a strange thing to think about when the Cowboys’ starter is coming off a career year. But it’s smart to have a contingency plan. As long as Prescott remains unsigned, Lance just might be that.

David Helman covers the Dallas Cowboys for FOX Sports and hosts the NFL on FOX podcast. 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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