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Who is the real Dak Prescott?

Will Cowboys fans see the All-Pro 2016 version again? Or is the mediocre 2017 version who he really is?

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Dallas Cowboys Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys have major questions at a number of positions as we enter the 2018 draft season. From the offensive line to wide receiver to the defensive line, linebacker and the secondary, virtually every position group has uncertainty. But the answers to those questions will pale in comparison to the single biggest question facing the franchise’s near and long-term future: What does the team have with Dak Prescott at quarterback?

Is he the poised player we saw in 2016 who played at an All-Pro level and recorded one of the greatest rookie seasons in the NFL history? Or is he the mediocre, erratic, off-target player we saw in 2017?

A look at the numbers from the two different seasons show a clear pattern of performance.

Volume numbers

First, Prescott has never been a high-volume passer. The following are his NFL rankings in both 2016 and 2017:

Dak has ranked in the bottom-to-middle half of the league in terms of completions, attempts and yards in both 2016 and 2017. Dak basically averages 19 completions, 30 attempts and 218 yards per game. The only real difference between 2016 and 2017 was Dak threw two more passes per game, but for 20 fewer yards.

Dak has never been asked to “carry” the team the way some quarterbacks are. It’s almost certain, at least at this point in his career, he’s not capable of such an assignment.

Efficiency numbers

The real difference between 2016 and 2017 was Prescott was much less efficient. He declined in every such metric:

These are alarming declines. A nearly 5-point drop in completion percentage, half-point decline in touchdown percentage, 27% decline in adjusted net yards per attempt, 17% decline in passer rating and 19% decline in QBR. Perhaps worst of all was a three-fold increase in interception percentage. As a result, Prescott’s rankings in these categories, which were often top-3 in 2016, fell to the mid-teens or worse in 2017:

It’s not news to learn Prescott was an elite performer in 2016 and a mediocre performer in 2017. Football Outsider’s quarterback rankings show that by every advanced metric this is true:

For the unfamiliar, here’s how FO defines their advanced metrics:

Quarterbacks are ranked according to DYAR, or Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement. This gives the value of the quarterback ‘s performance compared to replacement level, adjusted for situation and opponent and then translated into yardage.

The other statistic given is DVOA, or Defense-adjusted Value Over Average. This number represents value, per play, over an average quarterback in the same game situations. The more positive the DVOA rating, the better the player’s performance. Negative DVOA represents below-average offense.

The simple version: DYAR means a quarterback with more total value. DVOA means a quarterback with more value per play.

Effective Yards, listed in red, translate DVOA into a yards per attempt figure. This provides an easy comparison: in general, players with more Effective Yards than standard yards played better than standard stats would otherwise indicate, while players with fewer Effective Yards than standard yards played worse than standard stats would otherwise indicate. Effective Yards are not the best way to measure total value because they are more dependent on usage than DYAR.

Total QBR (listed as just QBR) is a metric created by the ESPN Stats & Information group. Total QBR is based on the by the quarterback on each play, then adjusts the numbers to a scale of 0-100. There are five main differences between Total QBR and Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric (with further explanation here).

We see that Prescott finished 16th or 17th in all of FO’s advanced metrics, making him a very average quarterback. However, we also see that QBR ranks Prescott much, much higher. This is because QBR takes Prescott’s running ability into account. Football Outsider’s evaluates quarterback’s running contributions separately. And in this analysis we see that Prescott ranks among the very best in the NFL:

In fact, you could make the argument that Dak was the most effective running quarterback in the NFL in 2017. His DYAR trails only Russell Wilson by four points and is fully 30 points higher than the #3 player Marcus Mariota. He’s practically tied with Wilson for first place in YAR and he’s third in DVOA.

Wilson, Prescott, Mariota, Newton and Taylor are clearly the five best running QBs in the league and each are able to make significant offensive contributions with their legs.

But note that Prescott ranks only fourth in rushing attempts among the five. Newton ran the ball 7.5 times per game and Wilson five times per game while Dak barely averaged three rushes per game.

I found a random 2017 highlight video of Prescott and all 20 highlights feature Prescott either running with the ball or using his legs to escape pressure and then make a play.

One of the things that stood out throughout 2017 was Prescott was more accurate and effective when on the run than when throwing from the pocket. It felt like many of his best plays came while throwing on the run.

All of this should influence how the Cowboys can build a more “Dak-friendly” offense. Simply put, the Cowboys need to make more and better use of Dak’s elite running capabilities through:

  • More designed runs
  • More run-play options
  • More roll-outs

Let’s do away with the idea that Prescott can only succeed when “everything’s perfect around him” as many have suggested. Prescott’s own 2016 performance should disprove that. Why? Because things weren’t perfect around Prescott that year. In fact, Prescott’s pass protection was poor in 2016, ranking 24th in the league by Football Outsider’s evaluation.

Add the fact the Cowboys’ receiving corps has proven to be good (not great) and it’s simply a fallacy to suggest that Prescott was the beneficiary of an “elite” offense. The only elite unit was the running game (which benefited from Prescott’s running threat).

Note: the following statistics come from John Kinnear’s work at CowboysWire. I did not credit his work in my original post which was a bad oversight on my part. I apologize to John.

But 2017 showed that Prescott does struggle, not when things aren’t perfect around him, but when he’s facing consistent pressure. The following shows Prescott’s splits when facing pressure on more or less than 40% of dropbacks:

The reason this became more noticeable in 2017 was Prescott faced eight such games compared to only three such games in 2016. Now, pretty much every quarterback struggles when facing consistent pressure. The difference with Prescott is in games where he’s facing consistent pressure, he also struggles when not facing pressure:

Let’s look at the exact same statistics on plays where Prescott enjoyed a clean pocket:

This clearly illustrates that teams are able to rattle Prescott by getting pressure on him. And when this happens, he misses plays and makes mistakes not only when there’s pressure on him but also when he’s not under pressure. Luckily, this is a fixable weakness. Dak has always showed a willingness to learn and grow and I fully expect this to be a point of emphasis for him and the coaching staff in 2018.

Which gets us to a simple three point plan to restore Dak to his vintage 2016 version:

  • Bring in help on the offensive line via free agency or the draft to insure against anything remotely close to the Atlanta debacle ever happening again.
  • Design more plays that utilize Dak’s elite running skills.
  • Work with Dak to improve his poise when the pass protection struggles.

Two of those points seem relatively easy to address. The offensive line, however, could prove challenging, especially if Tyron Smith’s back proves unreliable. The reality is Dak probably isn’t as good as he was in 2016 or as bad as he was in 2017. But the Cowboys need Dak to at least be a top-10 QB for the team to bounce back from last year’s disappointing record.

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