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Why The Cowboys Should Expect Dak Prescott And Ezekiel Elliott To Be Better In Year Two

NFL players typically improve the most between their first and second seasons, and it should be no different in Dallas.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

In our recent series of “Burning Questions”, question #2 asked - Can Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott Be Better in 2017? The article recounted Dak and Zeke’s incredible performance metrics from 2016 and suggested ways they might be 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 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.

For Zeke,

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.

But let’s look at this another way. If you’ve been following along this offseason, we’ve used Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value (AV) stat numerous times.

Approximate Value (AV) method is an attempt to put a single number on the seasonal value of a player at any position from any year (since 1950).

We’re going to use it again here to compare all-time AV scores for rookie quarterbacks and running backs, with AV scores for those positions in year two.

Quarterbacks

Let’s look at the best AV scores for rookie quarterbacks.

Rk Player Year Age Draft Tm G GS Yrs PB AP1 AV
1 Cam Newton 2011 22 1--1 CAR 16 16 1 1 0 19
2 Robert Griffin 2012 22 1--2 WAS 15 15 1 1 0 18
3 Dak Prescott 2016 23 4-135 DAL 16 16 1 1 0 16
4 Russell Wilson 2012 24 3--75 SEA 16 16 1 1 0 16

There have been only four rookie quarterbacks to score AVs of 16 or higher. Compare this with the number of quarterbacks who have attained this number in their second year in the NFL. It is more than double the number — 10.

Rk Player Year Age Draft Tm G GS Yrs PB AP1 AV
1 Daunte Culpepper 2000 23 1--11 MIN 16 16 1 1 0 21
2 Dan Marino* 1984 23 1--27 MIA 16 16 1 1 1 21
3 Jeff Garcia 2000 30 SFO 16 16 1 1 0 20
4 Kurt Warner* 1999 28 STL 16 16 1 1 1 19
5 Peyton Manning 1999 23 1--1 IND 16 16 1 1 0 18
6 Carson Palmer 2005 26 1--1 CIN 16 16 1 1 0 17
7 Michael Vick 2002 22 1--1 ATL 15 15 1 1 0 17
8 Donovan McNabb 2000 24 1--2 PHI 16 16 1 1 0 16
9 Cam Newton 2012 23 1--1 CAR 16 16 1 0 0 16
10 Russell Wilson 2013 25 3--75 SEA 16 16 1 1 0 16

Moreover, two of the three quarterbacks on this list in their first year were on the list again in their second year — Cam Newton and Russell Wilson. The one who missed - Robert Griffen — suffered a major injury and played in a bit of a gimmick offense that caught the NFL by surprise his rookie season.

This suggests that second year quarterbacks have a somewhat better chance of scoring well than they did as rookie.

Running Backs

Here is the table for rookie running backs with AVs of 16 or higher. Seven running backs achieved that lofty goal their first year.

Rk Player Year Age Draft Tm G GS Yrs PB AP1 AV
1 Edgerrin James 1999 21 1--4 IND 16 16 1 1 1 21
2 Marcus Allen* 1982 22 1--10 RAI 9 9 1 1 1 18
3 Gale Sayers* 1965 22 1--4 CHI 14 1 1 1 18
4 Tony Dorsett* 1977 23 1--2 DAL 14 4 1 0 0 16
5 Ezekiel Elliott 2016 21 1--4 DAL 15 15 1 1 1 16
6 Marshall Faulk* 1994 21 1--2 IND 16 16 1 1 0 16
7 Ricky Watters 1992 23 2--45 SFO 14 13 1 1 0 16

Now compare that to the totals for second year runners.

Rk Player Year Age Draft Tm G GS Yrs PB AP1 AV
1 Otis Armstrong 1974 24 1--9 DEN 14 14 1 1 1 22
2 Edgerrin James 2000 22 1--4 IND 16 16 1 1 0 21
3 Arian Foster 2010 24 HOU 16 13 1 1 1 20
4 Larry Brown 1970 23 8-191 WAS 13 13 1 1 1 19
5 Chris Johnson 2009 24 1--24 TEN 16 16 1 1 1 19
6 Lawrence McCutcheon 1973 23 3--70 RAM 12 12 1 1 0 19
7 Ron Johnson 1970 23 1--20 NYG 14 14 1 1 1 18
8 Ray Rice 2009 22 2--55 BAL 16 15 1 1 0 18
9 Le'Veon Bell 2014 22 2--48 PIT 16 16 1 1 1 17
10 Eric Dickerson* 1984 24 1--2 RAM 16 16 1 1 1 17
11 Tony Dorsett* 1978 24 1--2 DAL 16 15 1 1 0 17
12 Chuck Foreman 1974 24 1--12 MIN 13 13 1 1 0 17
13 Steve Owens 1971 24 1--19 DET 14 13 1 1 0 17
14 Barry Sanders* 1990 22 1--3 DET 16 16 1 1 1 17
15 Gale Sayers* 1966 23 1--4 CHI 14 1 1 1 17
16 Emmitt Smith* 1991 22 1--17 DAL 16 16 1 1 0 17
17 William Andrews 1980 25 3--79 ATL 16 16 1 1 0 16
18 Billy Cannon 1961 24 1--1 HOU 14 1 1 1 16
19 Terrell Davis* 1996 24 6-196 DEN 16 16 1 1 1 16
20 Mike Garrett 1967 23 2--18 KAN 14 1 1 1 16
21 Frank Gore 2006 23 3--65 SFO 16 16 1 1 0 16
22 Eddie Lacy 2014 23 2--61 GNB 16 16 1 0 0 16
23 Deuce McAllister 2002 24 1--23 NOR 15 15 1 1 0 16
24 Freeman McNeil 1982 23 1--3 NYJ 9 9 1 1 1 16
25 Clinton Portis 2003 22 2--51 DEN 13 13 1 1 0 16
26 Billy Sims 1981 26 1--1 DET 14 14 1 1 0 16
27 Thurman Thomas* 1989 23 2--40 BUF 16 16 1 1 0 16

Instead of seven running backs scoring 16 AV or higher, we have 27, although only three of the six who could repeat did so (Elliott hasn’t had his second season). The three who missed - Marshall Faulk, Ricky Watters, and Marcus Allen, all scored 13 or more AV in their second campaigns.

So, as a whole, quarterbacks and running backs tend to have higher success in their second seasons. It’s possible that an individual player might not, but even where there has been some slippage, it has been minor.

This bodes well for Dak and Zeke going into their second seasons.