Icon Sportswire / Contributor

Dak Prescott is a free agent, but not for long. And considering you can't trade free agents -- a point that apparently needs to be stated nowadays -- the two-time Pro Bowl quarterback will be in a Dallas Cowboys uniform for the 2021 season, by hook or by crook, but both sides would prefer it not be under a second franchise tag. The window for NFL teams to begin issuing franchise tags opened on Tuesday and extends to March 9, barring a change of some sort, and that means the time to get a deal done with Prescott has officially begun. 

Don't expect the Cowboys to pull the trigger on tagging Prescott from the outset, however, because they'd much prefer to get a long-term deal done before the second Tuesday in March. To that end, they've now reignited discussions with the franchise quarterback, sources tell CBS Sports, but it's key to note a new offer has not yet been made by either side. As it stands, while the talks have been recent, they've been more of the "feeler" variety than any hardline number-volleying, as the team attempts to wade through the salary cap waters and Prescott's camp waits to hear their latest proposal.

So, yes, there's progress, but it's more of a tiptoe at the moment than a full-on derby stride. 

The nearly two-month silence in negotiations that could've begun at the turn of the new calendar year were fueled by the Cowboys attempts to get a handle on what the salary cap will be in 2021, as CBS Sports noted on Feb. 1, but there's been a bit of clarity that's come down the pike -- by way of the NFL and NFLPA agreeing to raise the previously agreed upon cap floor from $175 million to $180 million. Their have been rumors the cap could land anywhere between $185 million and $195 million, but the jury is out on if they'll hold true. At the bare minimum, the Cowboys know more about the cap than they did three weeks ago.

That's given them enough comfort to at least reach out to Prescott's agent, Todd France, to begin warming the table for a third round of talks -- also knowing they have more than $25 million to roll over into this year's cap after having used releases and restructures to squirrel away money for talks with Prescott this offseason. 

And as far as the recovery from his season-ending ankle injury goes: the Cowboys are pleased and Prescott remains ahead of schedule. 

The 27-year-old is no longer in need of crutches or his walking boot, as reported by CBS Sports in early February and later confirmed publicly by Prescott's family, weeks after undergoing a second procedure all sides viewed as a clean-up surgery designed to strengthen his ankle and make it less prone to reinjury. The procedure was voluntary and not related to a setback of any sort, with the Cowboys medical staff overseeing Prescott's recovery every step of the way and having full confidence he'll not only return to form, but better than ever -- the latter according to Jerry Jones. 

Jones also made it clear he could not fathom how Prescott "could have any more leverage" than he did after his absence drove home his value to the Cowboys, but it's arguably increased after the NFL witnessed Jared Goff and Carson Wentz jettisoned by the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles, respectively. For while the former No. 1- and No. 2- overall picks find themselves trying to rebuild their careers, Prescott was operating at a record-setting pace -- again -- before suffering his injury in Week 5.

The Cowboys were never remotely the same without him, and they've since doubled and tripled down on the fact they want Prescott to be around for the long haul. 

That feeling is mutual.

"I've been a fan of this organization and this program for years," Prescott said last July, after a second round of talks stalled at the NFL deadline. "I love every bit of the opportunity and the platform that I get to be the quarterback here. I love this team and I'm excited about what we can do and accomplish this year. There's no frustration. 

"I believe something will get done, and I believe I'll be a Dallas Cowboy for the rest of my career."

The reality is, however, that it isn't done until it's done, and thus the work again begins.

The key reason for the failure to agree to to terms in 2020 was the length of the deal, with the Cowboys wanting to go long at five years while Prescott stood firm at four. That will again be a major talking point this time around, but compensation has now re-entered the chat, considering the five-year, $175 million offer that included roughly $105 million is now outdated by market and individual-value standards. Deshaun Watson's new deal that landed in September -- averaging just under $40 million annually and includes $111 million guaranteed -- helped frame the coming ask of Prescott, establishing what will likely be used as the floor before applying a fair-market value markup. 

With Patrick Mahomes being the ceiling at around $45 million AAS, the sweet spot for Prescott to be seated directly in between the two is ready-made. 

But before the Cowboys can make their first 2021 pitch, they need to come to terms with just how cumbersome carrying a $37.7 million tag will be to their cap. Striking a long-term deal with Prescott would potentially allow for more cap space this offseason -- assuming the deal is structured appropriately -- that would allow them to begin revamping their beleaguered defense ahead of the 2021 NFL Draft. Already having eyes on potentially re-signing defensive lineman Gerald McCoy and having interest in former All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman, as two examples, newly hired defensive coordinator Dan Quinn is ready to get cooking, but won't truly be allowed to if the Cowboys brass handcuffs itself.

The organization has been on the receiving end of a barrage of criticism from its own legends for having yet to agree to terms with Prescott -- from Jimmy Johnson skewering the club, to Emmitt Smith mirroring the sentiments, to Troy Aikman noting he'd "sleep a lot better" if Prescott signed to a long-term deal. That's likely also true for offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, who made his decision to forego leaving for Boise State and instead signed an extension with the Cowboys predicated upon the team's ability to finally get a deal done with Prescott

The good news for the Cowboys and Prescott is they both want the same thing, and should the team deploy the franchise tag to buy time until July 15 to finally achieve the mission at hand, it likely won't arrive until March 9. Considering the cap crunch and the sense of urgency to secure him long-term, though, you can expect the Cowboys to ramp up talks fairly quickly and fairly soon.

The sooner they know what the actual cap number will be, the sooner they'll be off to the races.