5 Reasons Dak Prescott is a Late-Round Steal - Footballguys

A detailed look at Dak Prescott's fantasy prospects for 2018.

Without a doubt, the late-round quarterback strategy has all but become the default in most formats. Dak Prescott is a prime target for that strategy thanks to his current consensus ADP of QB21 pushing his talents into the 12th round or later in 12-team leagues. Those brave enough to wait and capitalize on that value will reap the benefits of securing a quarterback with top-five potential for the price of a backup tight end.

  • Prescott’s 2017 wasn’t as bad as most think. He was inconsistent but still provided QB1 numbers.
  • Ezekiel Elliott is back. The bedrock of the Cowboys’ offense was dearly missed during his six-game suspension last year.
  • Addition by subtraction. A loss in leadership and experience forces a reimagining of the offense.
  • Versatility over volatility. More speed, more youth, more versatility on offense equals more production.
  • Solidarity in the trenches. The Cowboys offensive line is still elite and may even be better this year.

2017 Wasn't as Bad as You Think

Prescott’s first-half vs. second-half numbers in 2017 tell two entirely different stories. The first of which takes place in a world of optimism starring a quarterback that limited mistakes and marched up the leaderboard thanks to a three-game stretch where he scored 11 touchdowns (9 passing, 2 rushing) and was on his way to a top-five finish.

The second story ushers in the harsh reality of football—that touchdown regression looms large each week and players who lack efficiency and volume quickly devolve into an unreliable boom-or-bust assets prone to turnovers.   

Determining which of these stories best sets the stage for Prescott in 2018 is complicated. Last year, over the course of a traditional fantasy season (Weeks 1-16), he finished as QB10. That ranking, however, ignores his downside and dangerously favors season-long totals over week-to-week consistency. He ended his season with six games as QB18 or worse, including three of QB29 or worse. Those performances led to his being cut in many leagues.  

But he also provided six top-12 finishes and four of QB3 or better, which tied him with Cam Newton, Carson Wentz, Kirk Cousins, and Russell Wilson for the most top-three finishes last season. In fact, his 27 total touchdowns in 2017 were only two fewer than what he scored in 2016, adding up to a 34.4-point difference from 2016 to 2017 when you discard Week 17. That’s not a difference to take lightly, but it’s not a difficult difference to overcome in 2018.

Studying the film can tell the true story, right? Prescott was terrible at times. But check out this cut-up of all 13 of his interceptions from last year:

Once again, two conflicting stories emerge. On the one hand, he made some poor decisions, demonstrated some awful throws and even worse footwork. On the other hand, he ran into bad luck with batted passes, deflections, getting hit as he threw, and was sabotaged by poor-handed receivers.

So which story is the better predictor of Prescott’s 2018 outlook? Truthfully, neither because they both ignore his hyper-efficient rookie season. Writing off 2016 as a fluke is even more irresponsible than using his QB10 ranking last year to justify drafting him this year.

It just so happens Prescott’s best weekly finishes were frontloaded in 2017. Imagine how the season would read if his best weeks were nicely spread out through the season, instead of in the first half? Or imagine if his best weeks happened in the second half instead of the first half. Both of those hypotheticals would drastically change the optics of his situation.

His dip in production was the result of a ton of factors (injuries, poor receiver play, suspensions, natural regression). After Prescott posted the best completion percentage, the best touchdown-to-interception ratio, and the best passer rating by any rookie in NFL history in 2016, it’s no wonder people think he was bad in 2017. But he wasn’t as bad as his current ADP suggests.

Elliott is Back

Elliott is a game-changer who not only impacts the Cowboys’ playoff chances, he inflates Prescott’s week-to-week ceiling.

In 2016, Elliott and Prescott looked like the next great duo. By air and by ground, their talents, aided by a posse of road-graders and bulldozers along the offensive line, provided the Cowboys with the fifth most yards and points that season. Elliott’s effectiveness tormented defenses and was one of the primary reasons Prescott posted historic rookie numbers. 

And then 2017 happened. Elliott’s suspension suffocated the Cowboys’ offense. They lost three straight games, flipping their then 5-3 record to 5-6, and missed the playoffs as a result. His absence also deflated Prescott’s confidence and allowed defenses to game-plan around the Cowboys’ ineffective receivers. Make no mistake about it, Elliott’s presence means everything for Prescott’s 2018 outlook. The table below shows how dramatic his game splits were with and without Elliott:

Split
Games
Comps
Attempts
Yards
TDs
INTs
Sacks
Comp%
Rushes
Yards
TDs
FanPts
PPG
QB Rk
With Elliott
10
201
323
2178
17
6
15
62.2
32
232
4
196
19.6
6th
W/O Elliot
6
107
167
1146
5
7
17
64.1
25
125
2
83
13.8
17th

With Elliott, Prescott produced QB6 numbers—matching his final rank of 2016—and scored nearly six more fantasy points per game. His interceptions were still an issue, but contrary to conventional wisdom, his passing attempts per game dropped without Elliott, naturally causing a slight increase in completion percentage.

The numbers justify a bullish attitude towards Prescott with the return of Elliott. And even though it’s possible Elliott misses time this year due to the natural physicality of serving the workhorse role at running back, it’s also possible that Prescott will be more adept at handling that situation than he was in 2017. The same goes for the Cowboys coaching staff, who share a fair amount of blame for the way things tanked in the second half of the season.

Addition by Subtraction

For whatever reason, the chemistry between Dez Bryant and Prescott never materialized. Even with Elliott on the field, Prescott’s passer rating collapsed to 69.2 when targeting Bryant last year and only got worse after Elliott’s suspension.  

Still, anyone who says Prescott will be better off without Bryant (and future Hall of Fame tight end Jason Witten) probably needs to watch more football. Bryant especially has been the recipient of unfair criticism. Indeed, his best days are well in the past. But even though he lacks the speed and separation he once enjoyed in his prime, his elite ability to make contested catches still sets him apart from other receivers—an invaluable resource for young quarterbacks that tend to force throws into tight windows.

However, could their departures be addition by subtraction, something travdogg mentioned in The Shark Pool? The biggest knock on Bryant over his career has been his volatile nature on and off the field. Clips of him losing his cool on the sidelines often sparked debates of whether he was cancer to the team or if his emotions provided a positive boost. Either way, a big personality like Bryant’s is impossible for a quarterback to ignore, especially a fourth-rounder who wasn’t expected to start for at least another year or two.

Witten will be much tougher to replace. At this point, the Cowboys have six tight ends on their roster with varying degrees of skillsets. Not one of them offers the leadership role Witten has played for years, but his retirement forces the Cowboys to finally give their depth chart a closer look.

And then there’s Terrance Williams whose recent legal troubles leave his future with the team uncertain. His release, should it happen, would be no burden on Prescott. Williams and Bryant combined for 17 drops last year, the most of any tandem in the league.  

Free-agent signings notwithstanding, perhaps the biggest addition to the Cowboys receiving corps was wide receivers coach Sanjay Lal. Cole Beasley has already noticed a difference since Lal’s arrival:

Allen Hurns specifically named Lal as one of the reasons the receiver signed with Dallas:  

With a totally remodeled cast of players that have little-to-no time on the field together, Lal has a lot of work in front of him to convert this group into top-tier Broadway performers. But at least he won’t have to deal with huge personalities in the locker room. The same is true for Prescott, who can finally focus on the young, open-minded talent around him and develop a winning culture, instead of feeling pressured to force passes into tight windows of a once-elite wide receiver.

Versatility Over Volatility  

Parlaying the point above, the removal of two long-standing veterans at least caters to the necessity of a reimagined offense. The Cowboys brought in Hurns who, when healthy, has been a productive receiver capable of playing outside and in the slot. Tavon Austin, though unspectacular over the course of his career, immediately turbocharges an otherwise sluggish offense and provides a splash of versatility as a receiver, a running back, and a returner. Deonte Thompson, one of the fastest players in the NFL, offers yet another field-stretching dynamic. Prescott ranked sixth-best in quarterback rating in both years when throwing 20+ yards downfield and ranked second in Football Outsiders' Deep Ball Project. But his accuracy could be the result of infrequency, as members of the Shark Pool correctly noted. The other side of that argument is that Prescott didn’t attempt more deep balls because his receivers couldn’t break coverage. Thompson at least offers that potential.

From the draft, the Cowboys stole Michael Gallup in the third round. Gallup boasts an elite college dominator rating and perfectly fits within a group of wide receivers that desperately needs a traditional outside threat. He doesn’t offer a ton of speed and can’t be a 1-to-1 replacement for someone like Bryant, but his size will be a welcome presence in the red zone.  

None of this suggests they have a better receiving corps than they did last year, and the tight end position is full of question marks, but they have more youth, more versatility, more speed, and fewer locker-room concerns. All the offense needs now is more creativity from the scheme, a burden that falls squarely on the shoulders of offensive coordinator Scott Linehan.

Solidarity in The Trenches

The Cowboys’ offensive line suffered a few setbacks last year due to injuries. According to this 10-Stat Pack by John Kinnear, when either Tyron Smith or Zack Martin missed most or all of a game, every wide receiver saw a drop of at least 34 rating points on their targets. Smith missed three games, including two back-to-back in Weeks 10 and 11. Prescott was sacked 12 times during those two games alone. Thankfully Smith is healthy and back to All-Pro form, which will allow new offensive line coach Paul Alexander the chance to field one of the best offensive line groupings in the NFL.

Part of that grouping could mean swinging La’el Collins back inside as a guard after they signed Cameron Fleming to add more depth at tackle. Collins improved at tackle last year but is likely better suited as an interior pass-blocker than an edge defender.

Regardless of alignment, one thing is absolutely certain: the Cowboys have three of the league's best offensive linemen in Smith, Martin, and Travis Frederick, and Collins and Fleming offer solid options to plug other gaps. A clean pocket for Prescott and open lanes for Elliott all but guarantees a more productive offense, which in turn means Prescott’s efficiency will stabilize.

Final Thoughts

Prescott deserves much of the criticism he has received over the last year and there are plenty of concerns circling his prospects for 2018 (lack of volume, consistency, surrounding talent). But don’t let his poor second half of 2017 affect your ability to see his value. For 75% of his short career, he has been a fantasy QB1 and yet his ADP filters him to a tier usually reserved for defenses and backup tight ends. Waiting that long to take a quarterback might challenge even the most fervent late-round quarterback believers, but doing so allows you to bolster your roster with quality depth at other positions, while still securing a quarterback with top-five potential.

Projections

Projector
Games
Comps
Attempts
Yards
TDs
INTs
Rushes
Yards
TDs
FumLost
David Dodds
15.4
304
477
3353
21.7
13.7
57
297
3.5
3.9
Bob Henry
16.0
305
490
3460
21.0
12.0
57
310
5.0
3.0
Jason Wood
16.0
304
480
3480
22.0
14.0
55
325
5.0
4.0
Maurile Tremblay
16.0
306
493
3433
20.0
15.0
57
312
4.2
1.2

Shark pool thoughts

tombonneau agrees that Prescott offers incredible value:

He was a low-end QB1 last year despite having Zeke gone for however many games. Now that said, as a dynasty owner, it was painful to watch that stretch of games as the bloom came off the young stud QB rose. He looked pretty hopeless in a few of those. I don't expect him to hit the skids in 2018 but the tantalizing upside we saw at the end of 2016 has definitely plateaued. He'll be a career low-tier QB1 but with his rushing TDs will have a few weeks a year where he is QB1. Perfect QBBC candidate especially at that ADP. 

TheDirtyWord argues that there is too much depth at quarterback to consider using a roster spot for Prescott:

The QB position in FF is so plentiful in terms of options that where Dak currently is via ADP is not about having good QB depth but rather, can I sacrifice a roster spot versus mining the WW should I need a QB.

Someone drafting QB1 late in the draft might feel REALLY good about starting that guy week after week.  Via FFC, the 2016 MVP - Matt Ryan is QB11.  Philip RIvers is QB15.  Rivers threw for 4500 yards and 28 TD's (against 10 INT's).  Where does that leave Dak...?  Well, what we know about the DAL passing game is:

1) Loss of three prominent players (Dez, Witten, Butler), being replaced by Allen Hurns and Michael Gallup (primarily).

2) What made Dak an effective FF QB1 in 2016 was his efficiency, not his volume.  His 67.8% completion rate (v 62.9% in 2017), his YPA (7.99 v 6.78) and 23/4 TD:INT ratio.  Doing a 4pt for TD -2pt for INT calculation = 2016 (84 points) - 2017 (62 points).

There is simply so much depth at QB, that it's completely plausible to take your chances on your QB2 being on the WW versus rostering a player you are high on at RB/WR.  Perhaps even a 3rd DST is you have taken a streaming approach to the position.

Dr. Dan also suggests waiting on waivers:

Dak may be one of the most overrated QBs in the league. He had an impressive rookie season, and then last year teams seemed to have figured him out. We've seen this with many other QBs. qb21 is possibly a little low, but not by much. I see Dak as a good qb2 option for folks, but not much more. I don't need to get into the supporting cast, because I don't think that's the problem. The offense will run through Zeke as it should, and Dak will do enough to manage the offense enough to not lose games. I think the mojo wore off and he's revealed for what he is: an average to above average QB. 

what that means for Dak as far as fantasy goes: he won't cost you much but might get you close to a low-end qb1 numbers as I think the depth is there at QB when 10 or 11-18 won't be that big of a difference. perhaps this is the year of the ww QB.