As the 2017 NFL season draws near, the Dallas Cowboys will be increasingly scrutinized by fans and the media. This article is the first installment of a series in which I will set out some realistic expectations for various Cowboys players.
The first player up is the face of the franchise, the newest starting quarterback to wear the Dallas Cowboys star on his helmet; Dak Prescott.
What a Rush!
Rushed into action due to injuries for the incumbent starter, Tony Romo, and first backup QB, Kellen Moore, Dak Prescott won 2016 NFL Rookie of the Year honors and turned in a rookie season for the ages.
Prescott tied Ben Roethlisberger's NFL record for wins by a rookie quarterback with 13.
His quarterback rating was third in the NFL in 2016, behind Tom Brady and Matt Ryan -- you know, the guys who played in the Super Bowl last year. Prescott was just ahead of Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers, two guys who will likely have their own gold jackets and shrines in Canton within the next decade. Dak's quarterback rating (QBR) of 104.9 set a new rookie record, besting Robert Griffin III's 2012 season.
He played with a poise that is uncommon for rookies in this league, and the determination to successfully lead the Cowboys to several comeback victories.
What he displayed in the playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers is something that should excite Dallas Cowboys fans around the world.
Getting down 25-3 early to the Packers, Dak Prescott was able to rally the team and slowly chip away at the lead. They were eventually able to tie the game and, if not for an epic Jared Cook catch that will be a feature in Aaron Rodgers' Hall of Fame highlight video, your Dallas Cowboys would have had a shot in overtime.
But the past is the past.
It's behind us.
So What do we Have to Look Forward to in Year Two?
The games in which Dak Prescott struggled most were against the New York Giants -- both losses, the Philadelphia overtime win, and the Minnesota Vikings win. In both losses to New York, Prescott had them close enough to win. It wasn't great play by him, but Dallas was there with a chance to win in the final few minutes of each game.
Against the Eagles and the Vikings, he and the offense started off slow. But as the game went on, Prescott was able to make big plays to help the team shrug off the slow start and come away with a victory.
Throughout the season, he showed he can make adjustments, battle back from slow starts, and have his team in position to win the game.
Dak Prescott seems to be a natural leader who has already won over the locker room.
Since year one was such an overwhelming success for Dak Prescott, we have to ask: just how high is his ceiling in year two?
Whatever you do, don't fall into the trap of the "sophomore slump" narrative.
Yes, defenses have more tape on Prescott entering his second season. But in turn, Prescott has more tape too, tape of himself against NFL competition and tape on that NFL competition. Prescott knows what needs to improve in his second season. And if 2016 is any evidence, we got a glimpse of the kind of work ethic and commitment he has.
I don't foresee a drop in performance from Dak. He was incredibly efficient and seemed to move the team down the field at will.
A Statistical Jump?
Statistically, he was really good.
He put up a passer rating of 104.9, threw for 3,667 yards, 23 touchdowns, only four interceptions, and he also ran for 282 yards and six touchdowns. I don't anticipate much, if any decline statistically for Prescott in his second year, and here's why...
The Dallas Cowboys are a run-first team.
They are one of the few whose goal at the outset of every game is to get the run game established. This allows them to control time of possession, get a lead, and then use the run game to keep it.
This offense caps Dak Prescott's passing output a bit.
It's definitely possible the numbers see an increase, if only because he will likely play in all 16 games in 2017 (remember he only played a drive in the season finale).
Remember that Tony Romo also played 15 games in a run-first offense -- in 2014 -- and had just over 3,700 passing yards. Romo threw for more touchdowns (34) than Prescott (23), but if you include Prescott's rushing touchdowns, his 29 total touchdowns wasn't far behind Romo's total.
Because Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys earned a first-place schedule for 2017, there's a good chance they don't see a 13-3 finish this season.
Vegas sports book, Westgate Superbook, has Dallas set at 9.5 wins for this season.
If I were a betting man, I'd take the over.
I do think that nine wins is a solid floor for a team that looks to be getting better despite several key offseason departures. While nine wins is the floor, I think that 12 wins is the ceiling, which would be a good season by anyone's standards.
Where Can He Improve His Game?
Inside The Star Staff Writer Brian Martin described three reasons why Dak Prescott will thrive in 2017. In addition to that, Prescott will improve because he has a few areas with room for improvement.
- First, Prescott showed a lack of awareness at times when facing pressure coming from the right side. He was very good at sensing pressure from his blind side, but struggled from the front side pressure (which is weird, should be the opposite). A full offseason to review 2016 film will allow him to work with quarterback coach Wade Wilson to detect that pressure with better efficiency.
- Secondly, as the season wore on, the team gave Prescott more freedom to use his legs. While I would prefer not to see many designed runs for the quarterback, such as they like to do in Carolina, I would like to see Dak scramble for yards when nothing is available down field.
- The final thing that he can improve on is his accuracy. Don't get me wrong, he was an accurate passer in 2016, but he can be better. Has to figure out how to lead his receivers better so that they will have opportunities for yards after the catch.
The Great Expectations for Dak Prescott
Dak Prescott improves upon his 2016 season and is in the conversation for NFL MVP honors, while leading Dallas to its first Super Bowl victory in more than 20 years.
Realistic Expectations for Dak Prescott
Prescott repeats his 2016 campaign, statistically speaking, while Dallas makes the playoffs as a division winner. The team advances to at least the NFC Championship Game.
The sky is the limit for Dak Prescott in his second year with the Cowboys. A few years down the road we may be talking about the organization shelling out the money to make him the top paid quarterback in the NFL.
What kind of expectations do you have for Dak Prescott in 2017?
Cowboys RB Mike Weber’s Injury Scare Continues Concerning Trend
Rookie RB Mike Weber had a brief scare earlier this week with a knee injury in practice, but thankfully the MRI came back with a good report. However, as he fights to have a future with the Dallas Cowboys, this health incident is a concerning reminder of Weber's recent history.
One reason that Weber fell to the seventh round of the 2019 NFL Draft was due to battling injuries during his last two years at Ohio State. He lost his starting job in 2017 due to ongoing hamstring issues and also had to miss time last year because of a foot strain.
Carrying the load for the Buckeyes is a far different workload than being second or third on the Cowboys' RB depth chart. But this latest scare happened in early May, just two weeks after Mike joined the team and well before the more strenuous activities of an NFL offseason.
A practice injury can cost you just as badly as one that happens in a game. And with Dallas already thin at RB, it could leave them severely shorthanded if it occurs during the regular season.
Many have projected that the Cowboys' RB group in 2019 would have Ezekiel Elliott as the obvious starter and then rookies Weber and Tony Pollard behind him. While Pollard was drafted three rounds ahead of Weber, he's not built to take a large number of carries if Zeke were to go out.
If Mike Weber does make the team, he would be expected to take a sizable role if something bad happen with Elliott.
The "injury prone" label is disastrous for any athlete, but especially a guy with no real claim to a roster spot. If Weber causes concern in the front office about his durability, they may go a different way at final cuts.
Remember, Mike's not just up against Pollard and Darius Jackson for a roster spot. There are still plenty of veteran free agent running backs out there that Dallas could turn to if they're not confident about their young prospects.
This isn't too say that one scary moment in May, which ultimately didn't amount to much, is reason to cut bait with Mike Weber. But when you stack it up with his injury history in college, it does make you wonder how he'll do over the course of an entire NFL season.
Hopefully, Weber bounces back from this and has a great summer. Former Buckeye RBs have treated Dallas well the last few years, and it'd be fantastic if Mike can provide the same solid solid depth that Rod Smith did.
But this latest news is just a reminder of why Dallas can't rest easy at running back just yet, and why they may still have another move to make to prepare for 2019.
Cowboys LB Jaylon Smith Graduating From Notre Dame
The 2019 season is right around the corner for the Dallas Cowboys, with OTA's and training camp getting ready to kickoff in the coming weeks/months.
Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith made the most of his offseason, going back to Notre Dame to finish out his college degree. Smith is set to graduate from Notre Dame this Saturday, and will walk to earn his degree in Film & Television.
Smith talked to DallasCowboys.com's David Helman about why it was so important for him to graduate and finish what he started at Notre Dame.
“When I left after my junior year, I promised my mom that I would go back and finish...Finishing my third year with the Cowboys, it was time.” - Jaylon Smith
2,025 @NotreDame undergraduates will receive degrees during Commencement Weekend. That contingent includes @thejaylonsmith Yes, the current @dallascowboys & former @NDFootball All-American linebacker, who took 21 credits this spring #4for40 #GraduatingChampions #CEV
Smith continues his leadership on and off the field, and we all send our congratulations to the Cowboys starting MIKE linebacker!
Ezekiel Elliott Snubbed from Top 25 Players Under 25 List
On Tuesday, Pro Football Focus published it's Top 25 Players Under 25, with Dallas Cowboys Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch one of only three linebackers on the list. Oddly, one of the best players on the team was absent from this same list; Running Back Ezekiel Elliott.
The running backs they included were Kareem Hunt, Saquon Barkley, and Alvin Kamara. Pro Football Focus has been very open about their dislike of Elliott's 2018 season, ranking him 30th in the NFL according to their player grades.
Elliott has won the NFL's rushing title in two of his three seasons and likely would have won it in 2017 had he not been served with a league-mandated six-game suspension. Elliott ran for nearly 1,000 yards in the 10 games he played, which put him in 10th place in rushing in 2017. Le'Veon Bell led the NFL in rushing that season with 1,291 yards. Using some basic arithmetic, I've discovered that Elliott finished just 308 yards off the league lead in six fewer games.
Despite being the most productive back in the NFL in his first three years in the NFL, Elliott gets knocked because he sees such a high volume of carries and targets from the Dallas Cowboys offense.
On Wednesday, Mark Chichester of Pro Football Focus talked about the players who just missed the cut. Here's what he had to say about Ezekiel Elliott.
"There’s no doubt that Ezekiel Elliott is one of the top players at his position, but it’s hard to overlook the fact that his production is, in large part, thanks to the offense that Dallas has built around him. Over the last three years, Elliott ranks first in rushing attempts (868), rushing yards (4048), rushing yards after contact (2567) and first down conversions (219). However, his three-year rushing grade of 80.2 ranks ninth among the 36 backs with at least 300 attempts in that span, while his 0.119 missed tackles forced per attempt ranks tied for 27th among the same group."
Mark Chichester - Pro Football Focus
Ezekiel Elliott is one of the best running backs in the NFL, if not the best. There can be an argument for Todd Gurley or Le'Veon Bell, and maybe even Saquon Barkley, but if you aren't including Ezekiel Elliott in the discussion, the discussion is a bit flawed.
For three years, under Scott Linehan as the offensive coordinator, every team in the NFL knows that Elliott is going to get the ball and get the ball a lot. Primarily on first downs. Yet, Elliott continues to be productive and grind out his yards, even against heavily stacked fronts.
I understand the argument that Elliott wasn't very efficient with his touches in 2018, but when you are the primary focus for opposing defenses, it makes it difficult to be efficient. Kareem Hunt and Alvin Kamar had the benefit of being coached by Andy Reid and Sean Payton who are considered creative offensive minds. Saquon Barkley had the benefit of Odell Beckham Jr keeping safeties honest.
While the Cowboys had Amari Cooper, the passing game still doesn't get near the respect that the Cowboys run game gets from opposing defensive coordinators. With Kellen Moore on board and the talk about presenting multiple formations for opposing teams to figure out, the Cowboys offense could get more creative in 2019.
Heading into his fourth year in the NFL, it's amazing that Ezekiel Elliott apparently still has something to prove to some out there. After winning rushing titles in two of his three seasons and averaging right around 100 yards a game, Elliott still doesn't get the respect he deserves from national observers.
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