How Dak Prescott has earned PFF's fourth-highest QB grade
Poise, confidence, command: through three games this season Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott is playing the QB position at a level unexpected from a rookie, much less a fourth-round pick. His veteran-like presence, consistent play, and ability to take care of the ball (99 attempts and counting without an interception) are all factors in Dallas’ impressive offensive play thus far. Prescott’s accuracy and field vision, offensive-line play, and good offensive schemes have all played their role in leading the QB to the fourth-highest grade at the position this season.
Dating back to the preseason, Prescott has been throwing the ball as accurately as anyone in the NFL—second only to Carson Wentz in adjusted completion percentage last week—specifically dominating the short to intermediate areas in every direction of the field. For the season, Prescott has recorded an overall adjusted completion percentage of 75.0, 12th-highest in the league. He’s just not missing many throws.
It’s easy to see that Prescott is sturdy and tall in the pocket, but his accuracy has mainly been a result of his balance while throwing, showing complete control of his body in every movement he’s been required to make. Whether it’s been sliding up in the pocket, resetting his feet to find second or third options, or throwing on the move, Prescott has impressed with his ability to look in control at all times.
Vision and pocket poise
When breaking down Prescott’s play thus far, it’s clear that he’s doing the top thing expected of an NFL quarterback: consistently finding the open guy. Prescott’s pre-snap dissection has been very good so far on many of the “easier” half-field type of reads. By far his most impressive trait, however, has been his ability to read multiple defenders on a play and maintain poise in the pocket while doing so. He has consistently given routes a chance to develop before taking off to run, and grades particularly well on throws traveling 10–19 yards in the air in between the numbers. A good tell for a quarterback’s vision is how well they are throwing the ball in the middle of the field, and Prescott is 10-for-11 for 191 yards, one TD, and a passer rating of 149.1 between the numbers, second to only Saints QB Drew Brees this season. These stats are clear indicators that he’s trusting what he sees and delivering accurately.
Offensive line and running game
The much-discussed Dallas offensive line has been the key behind making this offense tick, and has given Prescott clean pockets to step up into. While there have been more QB pressures surrendered than maybe expected by the unit as a whole, the interior play of Travis Fredrick (fifth-highest graded center this season) and Zack Martin (fifth-highest graded guard), specifically, have made it possible for Prescott to stand confidently, have the poise to read out defenses, and make throws to the short and mid-level areas. He has shown a good feel for edge rushers, but without the ability to step up with space to operate, he wouldn’t be nearly be as effective.
No play signifies the performance of Prescott and the offensive line better than this snap against the Bears:
This has been a common play for the Cowboys in the red zone throughout the years. Coverage dictates Prescott to start on his first read—Jason Witten on a corner/banana 7—and he quickly sees the defender get to outside leverage on the route (not what you typically want on this type of route). Prescott processes quickly and eliminates Witten as a first option, getting to his second read, Dez Bryant, on a crosser, only to see the WR bottled up by the cover-1 hole player with his man in trail position. Prescott then steps up into a clean pocket—provided by the three interior offensive lineman—and has the poise and vision to see Witten ultimately win on his route. The reset of his feet and accuracy (yes, it’s a superb route and Witten is open by a few yards) is an example some elite-level QB play that has surprised many thus far.
It’s no secret that a large part of Prescott’s continued success this season will rely on the offense’s strong commitment to running the football. Week 1 saw the Giants hold Ezekiel Elliot to 2.5 yards per carry on 20 attempts, and Prescott’s play suffered slightly because of it, being forced into 45 passing attempts. The last couple weeks have been better, however, as the Cowboys currently rank second behind the Patriots in rushing attempts, at 101, and sixth in rushing yards per game, at 134. Those numbers will need to stay consistent for Prescott’s continued success.
The Cowboys’ offensive staff is using some of the things Prescott is comfortable and familiar with from his days at Mississippi State, most notably empty backfield sets. The Cowboys have shown empty backfield sets at least nine times in each game this season, with a high of 13 in Week 3 against the Bears. Empty is good for numerous reasons; every quarterback loves empty, as the defense is forced to spread out and typically play simpler coverages (not to mention that blitzes are easier to sniff out). Everything looks more clear, more defined. Empty can also bring more inviting running lanes for a QB when routes are covered, something we’ve seen Prescott take advantage of already this season. At crucial moments, it’s been interesting to see the Cowboys employ this offensive set as their scheme of choice.
Prescott is also excelling in the bootleg game off of run action, something that will continue to partner well with the running-game presence. The rookie is 11-for-13 on bootlegs with one drop, showing superb accuracy when throwing on the run and good decision-making outside the pocket.
This Dallas offense is not an overly-complex system, but the variety of looks and a feel for timely calls from offensive coordinator Scott Linehan make it difficult to defend.
One area Prescott will need to improve in is pushing the ball deep downfield. The rookie is currently last in the NFL in deep-ball accuracy (12.5 adjusted completion percentage on passes traveling 20+ yards in the air), completing just one of eight such attempts for 28 yards. That lone completion in Week 3 saw Cole Beasley with a couple yards of separation, but needing to slow up to catch the ball, ultimately resulting in the WR getting tackled short of the goal line. Coverage has been tight downfield, but deep balls in the NFL are completed with precision—something we haven’t seen yet from Prescott thus far when stretching the field.
Prescott has not been challenged much with post-snap movement by teams through the first few weeks. The Giants mixed up looks pretty well in Week 1, forcing the QB to play fast at times, but the past two games have provided defined looks, and Prescott has taken advantage. This is partly because of Dallas’ talented personnel creating mismatches for most teams, but with tougher defenses on the horizon showing more complex schemes and blitz packages, this will be something to watch for.
Prescott’s decision-making and use of his legs will continue to be a premium, as some of his best plays have come when he has decided not to pull the trigger on a throw (and potentially put the ball in harm’s way).
The late Arnold Palmer said, “Concentration comes out of a combination of confidence and hunger.” This could not be more prevalent in Dak Prescott’s game right now.