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A Lesson From Baseball: Why Dak Prescott Is The NFL’s MVP

While Dak Prescott is getting some attention for the NFL MVP award, he’s not close to the top in most voters’ eyes at this point, but if you considered his real value to the Cowboys, he should be on top.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Dak Prescott, by any measure, has had a fantastic season. For example, one can read all the Dak and Zeke reports, linked at the end of the year-end article to get a sense of how he excelled in game after game. Even in games where he had a rough start, like the first Philadelphia game, he still rallied the Cowboys from a 10-point fourth quarter deficit and won the game by driving for a touchdown in the Cowboys’ opening overtime possession. He also calmly led Dallas to a winning touchdown at Pittsburgh after receiving the ball at the Dallas 25-yard line and having only 42 seconds left. Pittsburgh has won seven games in a row since that loss.

These are the numbers he compiled on the season.

1 Prescott 25 45 55.60% 227 5 0 69.4
2 Prescott 22 30 73.30% 292 8.2 0 103.7
3 Prescott 19 24 79% 248 11.1 1 123.6
4 Prescott 23 32 71.90% 245 8.05 2 114.7
5 Prescott 18 24 75% 227 9.68 1 117.9
6 Prescott 18 27 66.60% 247 8.55 3 1 117.4
7 Prescott 19 39 48.70% 287 6.53 2 1 79.8
8 Prescott 21 27 77.77% 247 11.3 3 0 141.8
9 Prescott 22 32 68.75% 319 9.85 2 0 121.7
10 Prescott 27 36 75.00% 301 9.7 3 0 127.2
11 Prescott 17 24 70.80% 195 8 1 0 108.9
12 Prescott 12 18 66.66% 139 6.85 1 0 108.3
13 Prescott 17 37 45.94% 165 2.05 1 2 45.4
14 Prescott 32 36 88.80% 279 6.76 0 0 99
15 Prescott 15 20 75.00% 212 12.42 3 0 148.3
16 Prescott 4 8 50.00% 37 4.62 0 0 63
Total 311 459 67.60% 3667 7.9 23 4 104.18

The only quarterbacks with a higher passer rating on the year were Matt Ryan and Tom Brady, who missed 25% of the season because of a suspension he served for cheating. Only Ryan and Brady finished ahead of Dak in ESPN’s QBR stat, though they were essentially tied until Dak was rested for the last game of the season. Dak also finished third, but this time to Ryan and Aaron Rodgers in ESPN’s QBR points added stat.

He’s certainly had the best season for any rookie quarterback in NFL history. And Mickey Spagnola at the Mothership makes a compelling argument for Dak as MVP, even if he can be accused of some Cowboys bias.

Look, Brady is great. But he led a 12-4 team from 2015 to an 11-1 record in his suspension-shortened season. Matt Ryan, too. But he led an 8-8 Atlanta team to an 11-5 record.

Is anyone out there also comprehending the incomprehensible season Dak threw down, improving the Cowboys by a franchise-best nine games?

Let’s start here, and remember, rookie Dak Prescott, fourth-round pick Dak Prescott: His 104.9 QB rating was third best in the NFL this year, behind only Brady (117.1) and Ryan (112.2), and is the second highest in Cowboys single-season history. His completion percentage (67.8) was fourth, and third best in Cowboys history. His average yards per attempt was fourth, .01 short of 8-yards per. His four interceptions tied for second fewest.

And let’s also give you some more Cowboys franchise perspective: After Danny White threw for 3,980 yards in 1983, what was then a Cowboys single-season high, only Romo since has passed for more yards than Dak’s 3,667.

Let’s continue. Not only has Dak set the record for wins by a rookie quarterback, but also the record by a mile for rookie completions (311), rookie completion percentage (67.8), needless to say rookie yards passing, average gain per attempt, rookie touchdown passes (23) – the previous record was Troy Aikman’s nine – and the franchise lowest interception percentage (.9).

Do you understand how good his season has been? How out of the blue this season has been? That in 57 years of Cowboys football, no Cowboys rookie quarterback, and two of them finished careers in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and three in the team’s Ring of Honor, has played like this?

Do you? Do you think the Cowboys would be where they are today, resting this weekend and waiting for a home Divisional Playoff game next weekend at AT&T Stadium against the remaining lowest seeded team, without Dak Prescott?

Just how darn valuable is that?

Yet, according to ESPN’s latest panelist poll for the MVP, Dak Prescott is ranked seventh, behind Matt Ryan, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Ezekiel Elliott, Derek Carr, and LeVeon Bell. How can the quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, who led his team to a 13-2 record and 11 straight wins before letting off the gas in the team’s final game, be seventh? (This is somewhat reminiscent of how Dak was the eighth quarterback selected in the 2016 NFL draft. Can’t the kid get some respect?)

Let’s Look At This A Different Way - Taking A Lesson From Baseball

If Dak Prescott played baseball, his value to the Cowboys would also consider his contract. Baseball values players based on wins above replacement (WAR), among other things. But baseball also factors in the additional value young players have to a team because for the first six years of their careers they are tied to the team that brought them up to the majors. During this time, they cannot become free agents, and their salaries are much more tightly controlled (though not as controlled as in the NFL).

So, for example, Fangraphs, one of the major baseball evaluation sites, ranked the trade value of the top 10 players in the game in mid-2016. Of the top five players on this list, only one - Mike Trout - was not under cheap team control for at least five years.

The additional value each of these players add because of their contract situation is quantified by baseball analysts in the following way.

  • First, looking at baseball as a whole, a dollar figure is calculated for the cost of a single win above replacement (WAR). That cost is about $8 million per WAR.
  • Second, each player’s estimated future WAR is calculated. For Carlos Correa, the player Fangraphs ranked the second-most valuable player in baseball, he was projected to average about 8.3 WAR for each year over the next five seasons.
  • Third, you can then multiply the annual WAR expected to be produced by the cost-per-WAR to estimate Correa’s value over the next five years. In this case, it would 41.5 WAR x $8 million = $332 million.
  • Fourth, you then subtract the contract value that the Houston Astros would have to pay Carlos Correa over those same five years. The difference is the surplus value the Astros gain by having an excellent player who is young and cheap.

That’s why Carlos Correa, not Mike Trout, tops the list of baseballs’ most valuable assets.

One of the inescapable truths of baseball, like other major sports, is that a player's salary and contract situation are key components of a player's value to a franchise. Even in a sport without a hard salary cap, franchises face their own payroll constraints, though this obviously varies from team to team. To put together an 88-win team, a franchise needs to cobble together roughly 40 wins above replacement from their major league roster. If a team tried to assemble a roster solely from free agency, baseball's retail market for talent, you'd expect them to have to shell out something in the range of a $260 million payroll. And that's assuming all that talent is actually available in free agency -- the yearly free-agent market is frequently thin at multiple positions -- and, of course, players must actually agree to sign with them.

The best way to win championships, obviously, is to have a good team, but it's hard to put together a good team without a number of good contracts.

If You Apply Baseball’s Lessons, Dak Prescott Is Unquestionably The NFL’s Most Valuable Player

Let’s look at the contracts and ages of the seven players, including Dak Prescott, the ESPN poll has ranked for NFL MVP.

  • Matt Ryan - He’s 31 years old, and with cap hits of $23,750,000, $23,750,000, and $21,650,000 until 2018, after which he’s a free agent.
  • Tom Brady - He’s 39 years old, and has cap hits over the next four years of $13,764,000, $14,000,000, $22,000,000, and $22,000,000.
  • Aaron Rodgers - He’s 33 years old, with cap hits of about $80 million over the next four years.
  • Ezekiel Elliott - He’s 21 years old, with a slotted contract for the fourth pick in the draft that pays him about $25 million over the next four years, with a team option for year five.
  • Derek Carr - He’s 25 years old, in the third year of a four-year rookie contract that pays him just over $5.3 million, after which he can be a free agent.
  • LeVeon Bell - He’s 24, and on the last year of a four year rookie contract paying him just over $4 million. He will be a free agent next season. He’s also been suspended, and therefor at risk of missing major parts of a season if he fails another drug test.
  • Dak Precott - He’s 23, and on the first year of a four-year rookie contract paying him just over $2.7 million total.

The difference in cap hit between Matt Ryan, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Dak Prescott is roughly $18-$20 million per year. For Ezekiel Elliott, Derek Carr, and LeVeon Bell, the difference is much less, but Bell will be a free agent next season, and Carr, who is injured and out for the playoffs, the season after. Only Zeke is under longer team control than Dak.

So, on contract price alone, Dak Prescott is much more valuable than the veteran quarterbacks he’s being ranked against. He’s more valuable than Carr and Bell because he’s healthy and under team control for much longer. And he’s more valuable than Zeke because there is one more factor to consider.

The trump card for Dak Prescott’s value is that he’s been able to step in for Tony Romo as a rookie quarterback. Indeed, having Dak is the main reason Dallas is expected to move on from Tony Romo after the season by trading or cutting him, which will free up $54 million in cap space over the next three years, even after taking a dead money cap hit in 2017. Plus, if Dallas is able to trade Romo, whatever value they receive in return will be because of Dak Prescott.

In the NFL, even more than in baseball, which has a luxury tax system but not a hard salary cap, the value of these inexpensive contracts cannot be underestimated. It helped Seattle achieve two Super Bowl appearances while Russell Wilson was under his cheap rookie contract by allowing the team to spend its limited cap resources on other players.

If, for each of the NFL MVP contenders, you add the playing value, the contract value, and, for Dak Prescott, the bonus he provides Dallas that will help the Cowboys build their roster, there is only one truly most valuable player, and it’s Dak Prescott by a landslide.

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