Fantasy Football: Let’s Not Bury Dak Prescott Just Yet

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If you were relying on Dak Prescott in your fantasy playoffs last year, you probably aren’t in a possession of a championship trophy. From Week 10 onward, he averaged 188 passing yards, 0.8 touchdowns, and 1.1 interceptions per game. To put it lightly, that’s very, very bad. He had the 25th-most fantasy points among QBs over that stretch. Some guys who scored more? Jacoby Brissett. Brett Hundley, in one less game. And Jameis Winstonin three fewer games.

So, if you’ve pinned the sophomore quarterback onto your “Do Not Draft” board, or crossed his name off your cheat sheet, it’s certainly understandable — but don’t be too hasty. Let’s look ahead to 2018, answer a couple critical questions, and determine whether Dak is worthy of your forgiveness, and your draft pick.

Check out where Andy, Mike, and Jason have Dak Prescott projected in the Ultimate Draft Kit.

“Why did Dak fall off a cliff in 2017?”

Yes, the second-half stats are atrocious. They’re so bad, you would think they’d be hard to justify or excuse. And yet, there were two very big explanations for Dak’s downfall in the latter half of 2017.

The first was the loss of Ezekiel Elliott to a six-game suspension. The superstar running back is the engine that makes this offense go, and we saw the entire train come to a grinding stop in Zeke’s absence. Just how big a difference does Elliott make to Dak’s success?

w/ Ezekiel Elliott w/o Ezekiel Elliott
Games 25 7
Completions 20.3 15.7
Attempts 31.0 24.9
Passing Yards 231 169
Yards/Attempt 7.8 6.5
Passing TDs 1.6 0.7
Rushing Yards 20.2 19.1
Rushing TDs 0.4 0.3
Sacks 1.6 2.4
Fantasy Points 23.2 13.7

That big.

Literally, every relevant stat on Dak’s record through two seasons is better with Zeke on the field. That even includes things like pass attempts and — by a slighter margin — rushing stats, both of which you might expect to be lower with Elliott in the lineup. And of course, the fantasy output alone should be an eye-opener. Dak has averaged almost a full 10 fewer fantasy points per game without Elliott, the difference between legitimately elite production and numbers unworthy of even a QB2 in fantasy.

Realistically, this shouldn’t be too surprising, though the actual magnitude of the difference is impressive. Zeke is one of the best backs in the game, is absolutely crucial to the success of the Dallas offense, and keeps defenses honest, opening up much more valuable opportunity for Dak in the passing game. While such a relatively small sample size might not typically be conclusive, the numbers are disparate enough, and the logic behind it sound enough, that we can expect a superior Dak Prescott when he’s flanked by his Pro-Bowl running back.

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But you may have also noticed the inclusion of sacks in the table above. Does Zeke have an effect on Prescott’s ability to stay upright behind the line? To a degree, the answer is yes. But this actually leads us to the second major explanation for Dak’s meltdown in 2017.

Week 10 was also the point at which Dallas’s top-notch offensive line began to falter. It was the first game without Tyron Smith (groin), their five-time Pro-Bowl and two-time First-Team All Pro left tackle. Smith ended up only missing three games, but also played through additional back and knee injuries for the remainder of the season. Meanwhile, the Cowboys’ right tackle, La’el Collins, also missed time and played with a bulging disc in his back over that same period.

For anyone who watched the Week 10 debacle against the Falcons — where Dak took a whopping eight sacks — it’s not hard to imagine how that experience might have affected Dak’s play for the remainder of the season. The horrible team performance in that 27-7 loss kicked off a miserable four-game stretch where Dak everaged 150 passing yards and threw two touchdowns to five interceptions.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Dak will enter 2018 with a healthy offensive line that, with the addition of second-round rookie Connor Williams at left guard, earns Pro Football Focus’ No. 2 rank in the entire NFL. He should also have a full season of Zeke, barring injury. Translation: we’re looking at the return of Good Dak this season. What does that look like?

Well, through 16 games as a rookie and the first eight games of 2017, Dak posted a 66% completion percentage, 228 passing yards per game, 39 passing touchdowns, 10 rushing touchdowns (and about 20 rushing yards per game), and only eight interceptions. That’s a per-game fantasy output of roughly 22.7 points per game, a seasonal pace that would essentially rank top two in any given year.

When he’s been on, Dak has been one of the most efficient QBs in the league, fully capable of elite upside. While it’s possible, even likely, that his touchdown and interception numbers both regress towards the mean a bit, we could shift the TDs down and the INTs up by a chunky 20% each and still project him for 20.6 fantasy points per game, good for top-five without question.

“Where have all the pass-catchers gone?”

But Matt,” one might ask in an exaggeratedly high-pitched voice, “who will Dak throw to in 2018, now that his key targets are gone?” Fair question, Voice of Public Opinion, but not as important a question as you may think. Why? Because Dak’s pass-catching crew was part of the problem in 2017.

Take Dez Bryant, the supposed No. 1 wideout for the Cowboys. Whether it was lingering injury, bad chemistry with Dak, his elevated age, a brutal cornerback schedule, or some combination of these, Dez was simply not good last season. His receiver rating from Pro Football Focus (71.8) was 43rd in the league, behind guys like Kendall Wright and Albert Wilson. The normally reliable wideout led the entire league with 12 drops and failed to score anywhere close to his typically elite touchdown total, snagging only six on the season after years of double-digit production.

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The second most-targeted wideout in Dallas, Terrance Williams, was also impressively bad. His receiver rating (63.3) was even worse than Bryant’s, ranking 94th in the league, and he also dropped five passes on only 75 targets, the 13th-worst rate on at least that many targets. Keep in mind, PFF judges these drops off catchable passes, so they are more or less “on the receiver”.

All told, Dak suffered from the 11th most drops in the league (27). While losing the sure-handed Jason Witten won’t help, the Cowboys did add Allen Hurns in free agency and third-round pick Michael Gallup in the draft to bolster their receiving corps. Hurns has shown upside before, with a 1,031-yard, 10-TD season in 2015, and Gallup was regarded by some as one of the higher-upside receivers in the draft. Williams and reliable slot outlet Cole Beasley are still in town as well.

While the crew certainly isn’t elite, and in fact may be one of the worst in the NFL, it’s not as much of a downgrade in 2018 as many have labeled it to be, and we saw Dak producing at Pro Bowl levels in the first half of the season with a similarly sub-par crew.

Conclusion

Considering the difficulty of projecting Dak Prescott’s upside with this unproven pass-catching group, there is some reason for hesitation in 2018. But where the rubber really meets the road here is the value. Dak is currently going as the QB20 in the 13th round, according to Fantasy Football Calculator. This is a guy who finished as the QB11 last year despite an entire half-season of abysmal production.

As we’ve addressed, that cavernous hole in his stat line was clearly tied to the loss of Ezekiel Elliott and the injuries to his top-tier offensive line. With both those key factors back in place heading into this season, QB20 would be an absolute floor for Prescott. Should Hurns and Gallup step up in ways Dez and Williams didn’t last season — potentially topped with a breakout from one of the Cowboys’ many young tight ends — Dak could easily break into the top 12 and beyond.

At this point, the concerns are more than baked into his draft price, and in 2QB/SuperFlex leagues or in any draft where you wait on QB, Dak has the upside to return immense value. I’m more than willing to grab a reliable guy like Philip Rivers or even Alex Smith, then swing back and take Dak for the upside in the double-digit rounds. Join me in giving the young Cowboy another chance and let’s see if he can rise out of the early grave fantasy players have dug for him.

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