Matt Waldman, of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio, reflects on Dak Prescott’s sterling rookie campaign and explains how he re-evaluated his process in light of Prescott’s success. What he discovered, about missing on the Dallas quarterback, reminded him of the opposite outcome with Russell Wilson.
[Note: This post is an excerpt from my QB chapter in the 2017 Rookie Scouting Portfolio, available April 1. You can purchase a login/password for download here]
Why I revisited Prescott’s tape
I don’t normally revisit a player after his first season. We’ve seen players become the darlings of the NFL for a season only to disappoint for the remainder of their careers. Nick Foles, Derek Andersen and Steve Slaton come to mind immediately.
But there was a wide enough gap between Prescott’s rookie performance in Dallas and my assessment of him at Mississippi State. There appeared to be a logical explanation for Prescott’s first month.
Without Dez Bryant early on, the Cowboys told Prescott to play a safe two-man game with Jason Witten and Cole Beasley against the short and intermediate zones. After all, 12-yard runs and 16-yard passes constitute explosive plays in the NFL. According to research from Packers’ former Head of Research and Development Mike Eayrs, teams with just one explosive play during a drive score 29 percent of the time. That rate of success jumps to 77 percent with two. Without a 12-yard run or 16-yard pass, an offense’s rate of scoring drops to 9 percent.
With Dallas’ excellent offensive line, Ezekiel Elliott’s skills, and two excellent middle-of-the-field receivers, it only made sense that the Cowboys could successfully minimize high-risk plays, pound defenses, keep its defense fresh, and keep games close into the fourth quarter. This is especially true when most NFL teams have a gap of four weeks before its first set of updated scouting reports turn up in a coach’s office.
The Erhardt-Perkins Offense was also a convenient factor. Simpler to learn than the West Coast Offense, Dak Prescott’s conceptual transition wasn’t as imposing as Jared Goff and Dallas’ surrounding talent is markedly better. As for Carson Wentz? He played in a WCO in college, which made the transition to the Eagles’ WCO a good fit. But it doesn’t mean Dak was playing Football For Dummies.
Far from it.
As the weeks progressed, Bryant returned to the lineup and opponents had advanced scouting on Prescott, the quarterback continued making strong decisions and his accuracy was crisp even at the extreme ends of his range. While it’s justifiable to say that Prescott gained confidence with a tightly constructed game plan in September and the Cowboys staff gradually widened the boundaries for the signal caller as he earned it, one cannot gloss over Prescott’s maturity.
Most top prospects can’t resist the urge to take risks. They have been conditioned to believe in their arm, athletic ability, and what they see for so long, there’s usually an adjustment period to the new reality of the NFL. Prescott was one of the most conceptually disciplined rookie quarterbacks I have seen in a while.
It was one fact about Prescott in Dallas what led me to question the differences between his stellar rookie campaign and what I saw from him months prior at Mississippi State. So I watched his Mississippi State film again, took notes, and compared those notes with the notes I took from the 2016 RSP analysis.
I found three primary factors that led to my grade on Prescott as my 19th-ranked option at the position in 2016 and a passer that concluded was Overrated:
- There were two stack-ranking tiers (Off-Platform Accuracy and Opposite Hash Accuracy) where Prescott could have earned an additional 2.4 points had I graded him on the low side of the borderline between two tiers in 2016. After comparing my 2016 and 2017 notes, I could see how I could have gone with the high side based on how close the criteria was to the higher tier.
- I placed more weight on plays where I saw Prescott make reckless decisions throwing the ball into tight coverage than on plays where he threw the ball away to avoid sacks. This was the difference of 2.9 points in my stack-ranking tier for Decision-Making.
- There were three games I didn’t get to watch in 2016 where Prescott’s upside with his Pocket Maneuver Accuracy and Mobile Accuracy were a tier higher than the games I saw. The difference to these stack-ranking tiers? A combined 3.18 points.
Add up these differences in points and Prescott’s Depth of Talent Grade rises from 67.67 points to 76.15 points, placing him fifth in my ranking behind Paxton Lynch’s 76.32 grade and only 1.2-1.7 points behind Goff, Wentz, and Cardale Jones.
When I look at that 76.32 score and factor in my earlier thoughts on Dallas’ line, Ezekiel Elliott, and the influences of the Erhardt-Perkins system in the Cowboys’ offense, I could have easily lived with that grade for Prescott. As I’ve observed this relatively new Depth of Talent grading scale over the years, I’ve found that a score of 75 or higher is usually a player with the materials to develop into a long-term starter.
It’s a reasonable score. Even if he nosedives in 2017 and beyond (or if he never saw the starting lineup in the first place), I believe the score would have been a more logical, defensible evaluation.
Because of the grade that I had for him in 2016 was so much lower than his actual performance in unexpected playing time as a rookie, it helped me discover gaps in my process that I otherwise might not have seen and attributed to years of development.
In many respects, these factors were similar to my experience analyzing Russell Wilson. The difference is that Wilson’s play validated my analysis and helped reinforce important lessons I gained from the exercise whereas Prescott’s play ran counter to my analysis.
What I have gained from revisiting Prescott’s tape
A few significant things. Primarily, I feel good knowing that three of the five areas that could have been scored higher were things that were borderline to another tier. For me, it indicates that I wasn’t blind what the player could do as much as I lacked the confidence in his ability to consistently do it.
Where I see something actionable for my process moving forward is volume of game study. Because there were potentially areas on the borderline of two tiers, I think those three games would have made a difference with my grade if I saw them in 2016.
It means I have to watch more games for quarterbacks. In order to do this, I will be abandoning play-by-play notes. This is not a big deal for 99.9 percent of my readers. These are raw notes that I never edit and I can count on one hand the number of people who tell me that they actually read these notes.
While I discussed that I transcribed every play, I never marketed them as must-read material. Far from it. The process was for me.
Writing down every possible thing of relevancy that I noticed with every player for the past 12 seasons has been the best education I could get about the game. As the things that I noticed grew with each passing year, I began to see benefits and unintended consequences.
My knoweldge of the game grew at an accelerated rate. Listen, if you write down as much as you can observe about every play of a player and use that information to formulate questions and find answers for even a year, you’ll get smarter about the game. For that matter, anything you study in this fashion.
Transcription is something that I learned to do as a young musician. It’s one of dozens of reasons why my musical education in Miami remains an invaluable resource of knowledge and wisdom in my life despite the fact that I no longer perform.
The exercise also helped me refine my process because I’d encounter things that my criteria didn’t sufficiently define. I also felt that showing all of my work to the football community would eventually earn me street cred and help me market the publication.
As an operations manager who earned certification in process improvement methods, these were all benefits that I anticipated would happen. I didn’t consider a consequence of seeing more with each passing year: The more I saw, the more I wrote. And the more I wrote, the more time it took to watch film.
Especially when it comes to quarterbacks. Beginning with the 2018 class, I will no longer be providing play-by-play notes reports on every player. RSP subscribers still get the grading checklists and there will be notes in each section, but I’ve reached a point of diminishing returns with this process. The time it takes for me to write play-by-play info could be spent watching more games of more players and devoting valuable time to my continuing education about game.
I will still do play-by-play work because transcription still helps me accumulate knowledge and refine my process, but I’m finding that I’m getting more from the process when I’m doing it 2-3 times a month rather than every day. Dak Prescott is a notable lesson why.
Thank you, Dak.
For analysis of skill players in the 2017 draft class, pre-order a login for the 2017 Rookie Scouting Portfolio – for April 1 download Better yet, if you’re a fantasy owner the Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 – 2017 RSPs at no additional charge. Best, yet, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio for just $9.95 apiece.