Dak Prescott burst onto the scene as a fourth-round pick in 2016. He then ended up taking over for an injured Tony Romo. The freshman phenom started all 16 games his rookie season but underachieved in his sophomore year. Coming off of a down year, expectations are not high for Prescott, but I believe he could surprise and become a reliable fantasy starter in 2018.
The Dez Dilemma
Prescott’s stats from 2016 and 2017 are nearly identical aside from two key categories: completion percentage and interceptions. One year after completing an impressive 67.8% of his passes, the Mississippi State product saw a marked decrease in accuracy, dropping to 63.1% in 2017. Part of this can be blamed on his increase in attempts (up 37 from the year prior), but is more likely a product of his over-reliance on Dez Bryant.
This past season, Bryant had a 27.1% target share in the Dallas offense, 10th highest in the league, but only 74.0% of his targets were catchable (58th in the NFL). Furthermore, according to playerprofiler.com, Dez came down with less than half of his contested balls, of which there were 32 in 2017. Couple that with Bryant’s 9 drops, and it is apparent why Dak and Dez combined for a poor 2017 campaign. In contrast, Bryant had only 1 drop in 2016 and came down with 73.3% of his 15 contested targets.
According to airyards.com, Dez Bryant’s average depth of target (aDOT) in 2016 was 14.40 yards, and he saw exactly one-third of his 96 targets between 10 and 16 yards downfield. Prescott’s completion percentage for that depth was about 66%, much higher than the league average for that distance. In 2017, however, Bryant saw his aDOT decline to 11.40 yards and Prescott’s completion percentage at that distance hovered right around 50%, considerably lower than the league average. This doesn’t seem to be a coincidence; Dez took up a large chunk of Prescott’s targets, so when he struggled, Dak struggled too.
It is highly likely that Bryant and Prescott were not on the same proverbial offensive page for much of the 2017 season. Dallas’ other top receivers saw much higher percentages of catchable balls, including star tight end Jason Witten (82.8%), wide receiver Terrance Williams (80.8%), and slot receiver Cole Beasley (76.2%). All three combined for only nine total drops on twice as many targets as Dez. Because much of the offense ran through Bryant, Dak sputtered as he tried to force the ball to a receiver playing substandard ball.
During the week four matchup between the Cowboys and the Los Angeles Rams, Fox analyst and former Dallas fullback Daryl Johnston remarked that the pair was “out of sync” after an especially errant pass. With Bryant gone for the upcoming 2018 campaign, Prescott will be free to spread the ball around to receivers much more capable of facilitating the offense.
In 2016, Dak Prescott’s distribution of targets, per airyards.com, followed a right-skewed, unimodal, and relatively smooth distribution, appearing to indicate that his passes were carefully game planned. He threw 39 passes four yards beyond the line of scrimmage, the most of any singular yardage depth, 65 passes of 0 yards or less, and only 13 deep passes (30+ yards). He was conservative, but also pushed the ball downfield at a reasonable pace. In 2017, however, his numbers got all jumbled up. An astonishing 17.2% of his attempts were at or behind the line of scrimmage. This should have boosted his completion percentage, but he attempted 24 deep balls and only completed approximately 40% of them (and if you were wondering, Dez Bryant’s average catch rate at that distance was an abysmal 28%).
New addition Allen Hurns is not only a replacement for Dez Bryant. He is an improvement. He came down with nearly 77% of his contested balls and had only 1 drop last year, all while playing with the inconsistent and much-maligned Blake Bortles. Even if it was Prescott who was inaccurate in his passes, and not Dez’s fault (as some of Bryant’s die-hard fans and agent likely contend), Hurns is the right man for the job. Hurns played four seasons with a quarterback who never completed more than 60.2% of his passes in a season but still posted attention-grabbing numbers.
In Hurns’ breakout 2015 campaign, during which he amassed 1034 yards and 10 touchdowns, Bortles completed a mere 59.2% of his passes and chucked the most interceptions in a season of his career (18). Essentially, Hurns can produce even when his quarterback fails to, which bodes well for Prescott, who benefits immensely from good WR#1 play.
The loss of Jason Witten to retirement likely will take a heavy toll on Prescott, as the quarterback spent his first two seasons with a security blanket at tight end. Fourth-round pick Dalton Shultz’s career reception total at Stanford (55) is dwarfed by Witten’s yearly average of 76.8 catches, and the Cowboys should not expect him to match Witten’s 18% target share from 2017.
Michael Gallup, Dallas’ third-round selection out of Colorado State, appears to be the rookie more likely to fill the void left by the Pro Bowl tight end. Gallup has the size (6’1”, 205 pounds) and speed (4.51 40-yard dash) to assert himself as Prescott’s number one target, taking some weight off Hurns’ shoulders. After a 1,272-yard, 14-touchdown campaign in 2016, Gallup returned for his senior year and posted 100 receptions for 1,413 yards, including six 100+ yard game and impressive showings against #1 Alabama and #22 Boise State. The Cowboys also traded for Tavon Austin, who will likely serve as a gadget player and open up new possibilities for the Dallas offense.
Prescott should see also benefit from All-Pro running back Ezekiel Elliott playing a full season. Elliott served a six-game suspension during weeks 10-15 of the 2017 season. Playing with Elliott for the first half of the season, Dak was the fourth-best fantasy quarterback, averaging 21.5 points per game, behind only Deshaun Watson, Russell Wilson, and Carson Wentz. Once Zeke left, Prescott plummeted to 22nd, averaging just 11.7 ppg, and throwing more interceptions (7) than touchdowns (5). The Dallas Cowboys operate a run-first offense. As much as the passing game flowed through Dez Bryant, the entire offense is a product of Zeke’s legs. The return of a running back that strikes fear into defenses also opens the field back up for Prescott to scramble. When Elliott is in the game, Prescott averages 5.8 yards per carry, but without him, his YPC drops to 5.0.
Poor play from his number one receiver and the absence of an All-Pro running back caused Dak Prescott to underperform in his sophomore season, but I do not see that trend continuing. If you currently have him in a dynasty league, hold on to him for the time being. If he is elsewhere in the league, now might be the perfect time to buy low to reap maximum rewards.