The 2016 season was a magical one for Dak Prescott. He was selected in the fourth round of the NFL Draft by his favorite team, the Dallas Cowboys. He was the first quarterback the team selected in the draft since 2009, and seen by many as a possible eventual heir to the premier position for the premier organization in sports. That eventuality occurred much quicker than anyone could have predicted.
A training camp injury to backup quarterback Kellen Moore pushed Prescott into a more prominent pre-season role, one which he took full advantage of. Then in their “dress rehearsal” preseason game, after only a few plays, starter Tony Romo scrambled out of the pocket, and as he attempted to slide he was hit from behind by Seattle Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril. The resulting back injury thrust Prescott into the spotlight as the starting quarterback for the Cowboys.
All he did was exceed every expectation and have what was arguably the greatest season a rookie quarterback has ever had in the NFL. A 13-3 record, 68% completion percentage, 3,667 yards, a 23-to-4 touchdown to interception ratio, and five fourth-quarter comeback wins is an extremely impressive resume for any quarterback, much less a rookie fourth-round pick.
Now the next step. How does Prescott avoid the “sophomore slump” that has struck other rookie sensations, including recent examples Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick?
The answer to that is to continue to improve in a few select areas.
— Bob Sturm (@SportsSturm) January 3, 2017
The first area where Prescott needs to show improvement in 2017 is to show more willingness to make intermediate throws over the middle of the field. As the chart above shows, Prescott made only two throws inside the hashes at a distance of greater than 15 yards, and zero throws inside the hashes more than 20 yards down field.
A part of this could be driven by the fact that the Cowboys’ ability to run the ball put defenses in situations where they played single-high coverages and kept a safety in the middle of the field, which would naturally send the ball outside. But the Cowboys saw plenty of split-safety defenses during the season for Prescott to target the middle of the field on more than a couple of occasions.
The other potential factor that kept Prescott from throwing across the middle of the field is the second thing that he needs to improve on for 2017: throwing with anticipation.
In the RZ & Plus RZ, anticipation is diff b/w 6 pts & 3. If Dak doesn't wait to see 88 win it's an EASY 6… pic.twitter.com/2FneQb5VVl
— Joey Ickes (@JoeyIckes) September 13, 2016
A big part of being able to do that is having confidence in what he’s seeing. On the play above, from the first week of the regular season, you can see that Prescott doesn’t quite trust what he is seeing, and doesn’t have the confidence to release the ball in time to give Dez Bryant room to make the catch before his man can close the window.
There was some improvement from Prescott in this area over the course of the season, and by Week 16 he was making throws like this:
This might be the most exciting play Dak has made this yr IMO. Rat player inside. Only way to complete this is w/ anticipation & accuracy ???????? pic.twitter.com/8Ya66ncrba
— Joey Ickes (@JoeyIckes) December 28, 2016
With a hole player in the middle of the field and the corner closing on the route, Prescott has a very small window to make this throw, and he puts it on Bryant’s back hip to protect the ball from the linebacker coming inside out. That’s a big-time quarterback play from the rookie.
If Prescott wants to take the next step in 2017 and avoid any type of sophomore slump, he’s going to have to exhibit this type of anticipation and accuracy in tight windows on a more consistent basis.