- The ideal circumstances in Dallas—the wrecking crew of an offensive line, Ezekiel Elliott in the backfield, and Dez Bryant and Jason Witten catching passes downfield—make it virtually impossible to gauge Dak Prescott’s true level of talent. We'll find out when things go awry for the Cowboys
An NFL quarterback is like a roof: you don't know how good it really is until there’s a storm. It was all sunny for Dak Prescott in 2016. He played behind the best offensive line the NFL has seen in 25 years. He handed the ball to rookie sensation Ezekiel Elliott. He had a true No. 1 receiver, Dez Bryant, who commanded safety help downfield, which made coverages easier to read. And Prescott had not one, but two security blankets to target underneath: 15-year tight end Jason
Witten, whom he could go to late in the down, and shifty sixth-year slot receiver Cole Beasley, whom he could target early in the down. Never before had a rookie QB been set up so perfectly for success.
Prescott has all of this again in 2017, but history says perfect conditions don’t last in the NFL. At some point, Prescott’s circumstances will change. No one knows when. Maybe if Elliott's suspension goes through. Or when someone gets hurt. Whenever it is, Prescott will be fascinating to evaluate.
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, to their credit, have capitalized on the favorable conditions surrounding Prescott, easing his transition to the pros. And Prescott, to his credit, has taken full advantage.
It starts with Prescott’s mobility. The Cowboys use it on read-option concepts just enough that defenses must account for it. That skews the D’s front seven looks and body counts, favoring the offense. Elliott is harder to corral if a defender must keep one eye on the quarterback.
The Cowboys create similar advantages in their passing designs. Play-action bootlegs and rollouts are staples. This gets Prescott throwing on the move, where he’s very comfortable. It also clarifies his reads. Not only is Prescott proficient at seeing the field while moving, but the field also becomes easier to understand: when a QB rolls out, he reads only the side he’s rolling to. Essentially, he must diagnose only half of the defense.
These play-action bootlegs and rollouts also help Elliott and the ground game. When Prescott hands off, he often fakes a rollout, forcing the backside defender to confirm that the QB no longer has the ball. This leaves more space for Elliott to run inside.
Prescott is hardly the first mobile QB to enter the NFL, but he’s one of the few who doesn’t use his mobility as a crutch. Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III, for example, could only prosper if they had all the schematic advantages that read-option concepts and rolling pockets created. The problem is you can’t use those tactics on every snap. It’s a pocket-passing league. When Kaepernick and Griffin had to drop back and make on-schedule throws, they would often panic and try to run. This led to sacks, missed throws and tons of poor reads. Their offenses could not develop any rhythm.
You don’t see this with Prescott. As a rookie he showed the “throw first, run second” mentality that NFL quarterbacking demands. He continued this on Sunday night against the Giants. To be fair, Prescott’s offensive line is better than any that Kaepernick or Griffin played behind. No quarterback last year had more time to throw and cleaner platforms to throw.
That was fortunate, because Prescott needed the extra time and space. Like many young QBs, he can be slow to make decisions. It’s not so much about identifying who is open, but rather, recognizing who won’t be open. Prescott tends to keep his eyes on covered receivers too long. He also sometimes fails to anticipate routes that, based on design, will defeat the coverage.
This is common of young quarterbacks and can be corrected with experience. That doesn’t mean it will, but Prescott’s chances are good. He has a natural calmness in the pocket, both mentality and physically. It shows in the subtly of his movement.
Physically, as a passer, Prescott is good enough, especially when you consider that he can execute throws on the move. His accuracy could be more precise at times, particularly on throws to the outside, but he’s further along than most young mobile QBs. Encouragingly, he can also throw from a classic under center dropback, as opposed to only out of the shotgun, as he did at Mississippi State. This suggests a high capacity to evolve; rarely do QBs who played only shotgun in college learn under-center timing and footwork early in their NFL careers.
It’ll be interesting to see where Prescott’s learning ability takes him in 2017. For a rookie (let alone a fourth-round rookie), he had a lot of presnap responsibilities at the line of scrimmage, and these appear to have already expanded. He frequently checks in and out of run plays, which means he can read defensive fronts. He also has a lot of freedom in spread empty formations, where all five eligible receivers are flanked outside and he’s alone in the backfield. Having all five eligible targets out wide leaves no extra blockers to help the O-line. And so, even with a star-studded O-line such as Dallas’s, the ball must come out quickly. It’s imperative a QB diagnose the defense before the snap; there isn’t enough time to only diagnose it after the snap.
Garrett and Linehan aid Prescott’s diagnostics by consistently aligning wide receivers outside the painted field numbers, closer to the sidelines. This stretches the defense, making it hard for safeties and linebackers to disguise coverages.
The widened offensive formations, however, inherently limit some of your pass designs. And so, overall, it’s been a rudimentary offense the Cowboys have run—one that wouldn’t work without a strong ground game. In fact, the Broncos last season showed what this sort of offense looks like without a potent rushing attack. The Broncos asked of Trevor Siemian much of what the Cowboys asked of Prescott. Siemian’s surrounding conditions were less favorable, and so were his results. Siemian's situation is the norm; Prescott's is the outlier. At some point, Prescott’s conditions will normalize. Let’s truly evaluate him then.
FILM NOTE ELABORATIONS
Against the Eagles, Junior Galette, who has missed the last two seasons with Achilles injuries, looked like he did in his Saints days. His change-of-direction was fluid and explosive. Several times off the defensive right edge he redirected cleanly back inside, both on solo moves and group pass rushing concepts. If Galette looks like this moving forward—and that’s a big if; it was one game, 16 snaps, we still don’t know how his body will hold up over the long haul—Washington’s pass rush will be among the league’s best. That changes the makeup of the defense.
Greg Robinson still struggles mentally sometimes, particularly on protection slides. That was evident throughout his Rams career and against the Cardinals on Sunday. But the Lions should be encouraged. Overall, their placeholder for injured Taylor Decker held up well against a formidable defensive end.
KEEP AN EYE ON
Eagles wide receiver Nelson Agholor. With Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith aboard, the 2015 first-round pick has moved into the slot, where he looks markedly quicker. Of course, that’s not saying much, given how sluggish Agholor was in Years 1 and 2. But he has a chance to redefine himself. The slot affords a receiver natural space coming off the line, and the Eagles augmented this by putting Agholor in presnap motion. Against Washington he operated at a different pace than we’ve seen before. Can he build on this?
CAUSE FOR CONCERN?
In an interview with 105.3 The Fan in Dallas last week, Giants cornerback Janoris Jenkins said something interesting about Dez Bryant. “Everything’s got to be a double move to get him open because he’s not fast . . . Take away the slant and the dig, and when they get in 21 personnel (2 RB, 1 TE) and Dez is inside the (painted field numbers), you take away the corner post, he don’t have nothing else.”
Jenkins isn’t wrong. Bryant relies on making contested catches and getting open on slower-developing downfield route concepts. Secondaries around the NFL have noticed. There are corners now, including Jenkins, who can handle Bryant one-on-one. That wasn’t the case a few years ago.
The David Johnson loss hurts the Cardinals as much as it does anyone’s fantasy team. (Or much more since, you know, this is real life.) Johnson individually created all 23 of his rushing yards against the Lions last Sunday. With the way Arizona’s reconfigured O-line blocked, most backs would have had negative yards.
Eric Berry is the most irreplaceable safety in football not named Earl Thomas. Besides stellar run support and the ability to individually defend tight ends (crucial in today’s NFL), Berry can consistently convert his zone coverage into man coverage against inside vertical routes. This is the nexus of Kansas City’s defense. Daniel Sorensen will fill Berry’s role in the base D. In sub-packages, it will likely be Eric Murray or ex-Seahawk Steven Terrell (who, by the way, failed at replacing an injured Thomas in Seattle last year). If Murray or Terrell can’t convert zone coverage into man coverage, the Chiefs will have to adjust their defensive scheme.
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