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10 Burning Questions: #2 - Can Dak Prescott And Ezekiel Elliott Be Better In 2017?

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In this series we will count down (from 10 to 1) some burning preseason questions for the Dallas Cowboys.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

In 2016, rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott were the drivers of the Dallas Cowboys’ success.

Here is the end-of-season Dak and Zeke Report, with totals that included the playoff loss to Green Bay.

How good were they in 2016?

Dak Prescott

For Dak Prescott, he ended up 335 of 497, for 67.6% completion rate, 3,969 yards, 7.9 ANY/A (adjusted net yards per attempt), 26 passing touchdowns to four interceptions, for a passer rating of 104.77 (third in the NFL behind Matt Ryan and Tom Brady, the two Super Bowl QBs). His QBR of 81.5 was also third in the NFL. Prescott also rushed for six touchdowns. He finished with 11 games above a 100 passer rating, for a new NFL rookie record.

To give you some idea of how ridiculously good that was:

We could go on, but let’s just interject a little highlight film here. Click through to youtube to view it.

Ezekiel Elliott

As great as Dak Prescott was, his performance was inseparable from Ezekiel Elliott’s. Without Zeke’s dominance, Dak Prescott could not have performed nearly as well. Zeke kept the Cowboys “ahead of the chains” as they say. The Cowboys finished fifth in points at 26.3 points per game, fourth in points per drive, at 2.45, second in expected points for their rushing offense, second in overall rushing yards (2,396) and rushing touchdowns (24), and third in yards per carry (4.8). Here’s how we summed up Zeke’s year.

Zeke A+. He finished with 1,631 yards rushing, only 178 yards from the all-time rookie rushing record, despite being rested for the last six quarters of the season. He still won the NFL rushing title by hundreds of yards. He also caught 32 passes for 362 yards, scored 16 touchdowns, and was a great pass protector when called upon.

In the Green Bay playoff game, we said

Zeke [wa]s a dominant force who was not given enough chances in this game, yet still came up with 125 yards, a 5.7 yard rushing average, and some great pass protection.

Let’s check out a highlight video for Zeke too. Click through to youtube to see it.

Can they get better?

It almost seems impossible to imagine Dak and Zeke having better seasons. Yet they might.

Dak Prescott

Earlier this offseason, we looked at whether Dak Prescott could improve on his record-setting rookie year.

To see if there is a sophomore slump, we looked at four quarterbacks Dak was often compared to this year to see how they did in their second seasons - Tony Romo, Russell Wilson, Tom Brady, and Ben Roethlisberger. Here was the conclusion.

The fascinating thing about this chart is that all four quarterbacks played almost exactly the same from a quarterback rating standpoint in their first and second years as starters in the NFL. Romo went from 10 to 16 games, Brady went from 14 to 16 games, and Roethlisberger went from 13 to 12 games because of injury. For three of the four, their passing yards increased, and for Romo and Brady their touchdowns increased, but all four of their ratings were very close. Tony Romo gained 2.3 points, Russell Wilson gained 1.2 points, but Brady and Big Ben stayed within a point.

That suggested that Dak might not improve much, but also might not be expected to drop off in his performance.

We also looked at Dak’s year, which we charted week-by-week throughout the season.

Dak only had three bad quarterback rating games on the year - two against the Giants, and the first Philadelphia game. If he were able to elevate his play against good defenses in his second season, perhaps this is where he could improve the most. Let’s split out his good games from his weaker ones and see what his stats might look like.

Click here to see the chart. Without those three bad games, Dak’s totals would have been 274 of 376, 72.8% completion, 3290 yards, 8.87 ANY/A, 23 TDs, 2 INTs, 117.44 passer rating.

These are 2016 Matt Ryan numbers. Ryan’s quarterback rating is 117.1, and his ANY/A is 9.03. If Dak posted a 117.44 passer rating, it would be the third highest single season of all time. It might be possible, but it’s not likely.

We also looked at Dak’s supporting cast, without the benefit of seeing free agency or the draft. Will the offensive line be as good or better? That was Burning Question #4. Can the receiving corps be better? That was Burning Question #9 (Dez), and #7 (Switzer and Gathers). With Terrance Williams and Brice Butler back, Dak will have essentially all the same weapons he had in 2016, plus a couple new ones.

The real challenge for Dak is going to be facing tougher defenses in 2017. We also looked at that issue.

If you look just at the Defensive Real Quarterback Rating of Dallas’s 2016 opponents, and project the 2016 results for Dallas’s 2017 opponents into next season, Dak and the Cowboys are facing a much tougher set of defenses next year. Of course, teams don’t stay static from one year to the next, so a team that played well against opposing quarterbacks in 2016 might not do as well in 2017. They might also do better.

I think the conclusion one would have to draw for Dak Prescott is that he’s likely to be better, given how hard he works, and how driven he is. One very telling story about Dak’s rookie year is how quickly he learned to take snaps under center, something he’d never done at Mississippi State.

“He said, ‘Give me a week and you’ll never know that I played exclusively in the shotgun and never called a play,'” Wilson said. “He said, ‘I’ll get it fixed.’” ... “He is relentless,” executive vice president Stephen Jones said. “It means a lot to him. It’s a huge priority for him obviously to be great. I think it’s all in front of him. Each year it’s going to be better.”

He may not have better overall stats, or win as many games, as he did as a rookie, given the potential for much tougher competition. But he’s likely to be better.

Ezekiel Elliott

It also seems like Zeke could be better. Our former colleague Joey Ickes penned this piece just a few days ago. Zeke himself says he could become better on the second level, by making guys miss and thereby getting more, longer runs.

For a player who tied for the league lead with 22 runs of 15 yards or more in 2016, the thought of even more dominance at the second level of the defense might sound like too much to expect, but what if it’s not?

Another way Zeke could improve would be to be used more in the passing game.

With only 39 targets in his rookie year, Elliott caught 32 passes for 363 yards, an average of over 11 yards per catch.

This relative lack of use in the passing game is why some rate Arizona’s David Johnson as the more valuable running back, as Johnson was targeted an incredible 120 times, (up from 57 targets as a rookie) catching 80 balls for 879 yards. Of course, Zeke outgained Johnson by 392 yards on the ground.

If you combine Johnson’s rushing attempts and passing targets, Arizona attempted to get him the ball 413 times, and he gained 2118 yards from scrimmage, for an average of 5.12 yards per target. Zeke was much more efficient, gaining 1994 yards from scrimmage on 361 rushes and targets, for 5.52 yards per target.

Given how many receiving targets Dallas already has, and the short-game efficiency of Cole Beasley and Jason Witten, plus the addition of Ryan Switzer, it’s doubtful that Zeke will ever get used in the passing game as much as Johnson. Still, he’s likely to be used more than he was as a rookie. Remember this 83-yard screen pass TD by Zeke against Pittsburgh?

With the athleticism of La’el Collins and Jonathan Cooper, we may see more of this.

Will the Dak and Zeke show be better in year two? If they are, the NFL better watch out! That is burning question number 2.

Burning question #10 - Can The Cowboys Return Game Return?

Burning question #9 - Can Dez Bryant Become a Cowboys’ Monster Again?

Burning question #8 - Will the Cowboys’ Underachievers Step Up This Year?

Burning question #7 - Will Rico Gathers and Ryan Switzer Improve the Cowboys’ Offense?

Burning question #6 - Will the Cowboys Force More Turnovers This Year?

Burning question #5 - Can Dallas Generate a Top-10 Pass Rush?

Burning question #4 - Can La’el Collins and Jonathan Cooper Keep The Cowboys’ Offensive Line Humming?

Burning question #3 - Can the Cowboys’ Defense Lower the Opponents’ Passer Rating?