Rayne Dakota Prescott wasn’t supposed to be the 2016 AP Offensive Rookie of the Year. Certainly not with the Dallas Cowboys, and certainly not ahead of the Rams’ Jared Goff and the Eagles’ Carson Wentz, the quarterbacks taken first and second overall, respectively, in the 2016 draft. Before the Cowboys selected Prescott out of Mississippi State with the 135th overall pick in the fourth round, the franchise had made overtures regarding Memphis’ Paxton Lynch (who went 26th overall to the Broncos) and Michigan State’s Connor Cook (who went 100th overall to the Raiders).
Of course, everything turned out all right in the end. After Tony Romo’s preseason back injury against the Seahawks, Prescott stepped in and outperformed all expectations. For a guy who was once compared to Tim Tebow in the predraft process and thought to be more of a predetermined thrower who couldn’t always hit the deep ball, Prescott’s final numbers—311 completions in 459 attempts for 3,667 yards, 23 touchdowns and just four interceptions—must have come as a shock to the naysayers.
Of course, the naysayers weren’t done. In many circles, Prescott’s success was reduced to the notion that he’s a product of the Cowboys system—the work of offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, the receivers he has, the offensive line he benefits from and the X-factor of fellow 2016 rookie Ezekiel Elliott wreaking all sorts of havoc out of the backfield.
Yes, it’s true the players around him made Prescott’s life easier. But a closer look at the stats and the tape shows a quarterback who gave just as much as he got. Prescott could have just as easily been a balky passer under pressure despite the efforts of his line. He could have been a fundamentally inaccurate quarterback on deep passes despite the presence of Dez Bryant or off target on intermediate throws despite having Cole Beasley as a reliable option from the slot. He could have been a relative disaster on play-action passes even with Elliott paving the way and forcing defenses to load the box.
But Prescott was none of those things. Under pressure in 2016, per Pro Football Focus’ charting metrics, he completed 52.9 percent of his passes on 197 dropbacks for 791 yards, five touchdowns and just one interception. If you want a comparative look at how some rookies throw under pressure, consider Wentz’s ghastly 1:9 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Prescott's 78.4 quarterback rating under pressure ranked seventh in the NFL last season, ahead of Drew Brees, Andrew Luck, Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning. Yes, he had a great line, but he was under pressure on 35.9 percent of his dropbacks. Not that those were all his line’s fault; there were times when Prescott held the ball too long and got himself into trouble. But there were other times that he had to stand in the pocket in the face of pressure and make a definitive throw, and he did.
Yes, he was lights-out in play-action, completing 75.7 percent of his passes for 1,115 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. But when he wasn’t in play-action? He completed 65.2 percent of his passes for 2,552 yards, 19 touchdowns and four picks. Not bad for a rookie, as they say. And he wasn’t just dinking and dunking—especially as the season wore on and his coaches opened up the playbook, he became a more estimable deep passer, a process that will accelerate in his second season, based on the tape.
Through the first nine weeks of the season, Prescott completed just eight of 19 passes that traveled 20 or more yards in the air for 246 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Those numbers are the result of a conservative game plan you’d expect any coaching staff to give a fourth-round rookie quarterback who wouldn’t be starting had Romo been healthy. But in the second half of the season and into the playoffs, when Prescott’s ability was clear and he gained the trust of the staff, his deep numbers expanded: 11 completions on 35 attempts for 365 yards, five touchdowns and one interception. Not world-beating numbers by any means, and there are ways in which Prescott can clearly improve his deep throwing from a mechanical perspective, but it was a good start.
Perhaps the throw that encapsulates the potential of his rookie season and what might lie ahead was this 40-yard touchdown pass to Bryant in the second quarter of Dallas’ eventual divisional-round loss to the Packers. Here, he’s got to deal with Packers linebacker Joe Thomas (No. 48) on an inside blitz, shortening his delivery as he’s trying to hit Bryant to the back side on a deep pass. Prescott gets the ball off because his lower body is stable, and he throws it past where cornerback LaDarius Gunter is, where Bryant can catch it.
One thing you want to see from a young quarterback is the ability to learn from his mistakes, especially in the same game. In the third quarter of Dallas’ Week 10 win over the Steelers, Prescott dropped back for this throw, which turned into an incompletion when he overthrew Bryant high downfield. The problem here is that he has linebacker James Harrison (No. 92) pressuring from his back side, and linebacker Ryan Shazier (No. 50) blitzing inside. Instead of moving to his right and resetting for optimal mechanics, Prescott allows the rushing defenders to compress the pocket and his follow-through. In this case, an errant throw is inevitable.
Fast-forward to Dallas’ next drive, and Shazier is blitzing again. But this time, instead of sticking where he was, Prescott makes a subtle move to his left, avoids Shazier, resets and hits Bryant in stride. Again, there are young quarterbacks who make a mess of things with consistent blitz pressure to deal with, but Prescott looks like a veteran on this throw.
If that doesn’t bust the myth that Prescott can’t make throws unless his line gives him a clean pocket, here’s a 24-yarder to Beasley in overtime of Dallas’ Week 8 win over the Eagles. One of the things about Prescott that became more apparent and impressive over the season was his sense of calm in the pocket, and this is a great example. Before he can set to make the throw, he’s got Eagles defensive end Vinny Curry (No. 75) blasting past tight end Jason Witten (No. 82) to get pressure in Prescott’s original pocket area. No issue—Prescott moves up in the pocket, keeps his eyes and shoulders downfield and hits his target. Lesser quarterbacks, especially quarterbacks with mobile tendencies, would be inclined to bail out of this pressure, but Prescott stays within himself and the play.
This isn’t to say that Prescott has everything figured out. He still goes through stretches of inaccuracy on deep throws where his mechanics get out of whack, and there is an aspect of "first read open" to Dallas’ passing game that gives Prescott an advantage. Per PFF, he had an open receiver (defined as a receiver having at least one step of separation from a defender) on 72.5 percent of his throws. However, among quarterbacks in his draft class, he had 7.5 percent fewer open throws. Which is to say that offensive coordinators tend to make things easier, schematically, for their young quarterbacks. And Prescott completed 62.7 percent of those throws, 12.9 percent better than the rest of the rookie class.
And when you watch how Prescott thrived as his coaches started to open up the playbook, that’s what gives you confidence he’ll take the next step in a fairly seamless fashion. Pete Prisco of CBSSports.com detailed a few of the audibles Prescott performed against the Baltimore Ravens' disguised coverages in Dallas' 27-17 Week 11 win, and I'll add this audible against the Detroit Lions in Week 16 that led to a first-quarter touchdown pass to receiver Brice Butler (No. 19).
Here, Prescott recognizes pre-snap that the Lions are playing a deep zone coverage and changes the play. In this zone coverage, slot safety Miles Killebrew (No. 35), who's lined up near but not directly over Butler, flares out to the curl/flat area instead of taking Butler one-on-one all the way to the end zone. Prescott's job here is to thread the needle before the deep defenders converge, and though the throw is a bit high, the pre-snap recognition is the key to an open receiver and a touchdown.
"Just his experience playing," Linehan said in May, per Kate Hairopoulos of the Dallas Morning News, when asked how he expects Prescott to develop in his second season. "Division opponents, how they're defending him, they're making adjustments as the season goes on. You start anticipating seeing some different things, we might see an adjustment as to how we're maybe doing something. They're going to spend a lot of time on us and on him. So we're being proactive on that and being ahead of the game that way."
Prescott should be ready for that challenge. Yes, he has benefited from the system and the players around him, but he’s added as much as he’s taken. That’s all you can ask from a fourth-round rookie who wasn’t expected to start. Now, he’ll be asked to take the mantle as the NFL’s next great quarterback.