The Dallas Cowboys and Dak Prescott are locked in the highest-stakes game of chicken in NFL history. The team has until 4 p.m. ET on July 15 to sign its quarterback to a long-term extension. If the two sides fail to come to terms, Prescott will likely sign his franchise tag and play out the 2020 season on a one-year, $31.4 million deal. The 26-year-old will also move one year closer to unrestricted free agency, where the Cowboys would run the risk of losing their franchise passer for nothing more than a midround compensatory pick.
The NFL is not typically a league in which players or teams like to entertain risk, especially when it comes to quarterbacks. When teams have valuable quarterbacks, they’re usually willing to do what it takes to hold onto them for as long as possible. And likewise, when players come due for a new deal, the league’s attrition rate usually leads them to take the best deal available as early as one is offered.
The Prescott negotiations are a rare exception to that rule, in part because it’s possible to project just about any sentiment you want onto him. He’s a game manager. He’s a hidden superstar. He’s greedy. He’s underpaid. Depending on whom you ask, Prescott is either a system quarterback or he’s the system itself.
In a league in which virtually nobody blinks an eye at a starting quarterback getting paid, everybody seems to have a strong opinion about Prescott, and the range of those opinions stretches from paying him top-of-the-line money to arguing that the Cowboys should move on altogether. We’ll see where the case for Prescott lands by comparing him to Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, quarterbacks from his draft class who have already landed extensions. To start, though, we need to understand why these two sides haven’t been able to find common ground on a new deal.
The Prescott money discussion, from both sides
The fact that the Cowboys have even needed to use the franchise tag on Prescott makes this a unique situation. To put things in context, since the 2011 CBA instituted a rookie scale and dramatically reduced rookie salaries, just two quarterbacks have been slapped with the franchise tag before Prescott. One was Drew Brees, who was 33 and already established as a Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback when the Saints used the tag in 2012 to retain his rights before negotiating an extension in July. The other was Kirk Cousins, who was tagged twice by Washington (2016 and 2017). We’ll get to Cousins later.
When the league instituted that rookie scale, it made rookie quarterbacks the biggest bargain in football. In the process, it also incentivized quarterbacks to get off those rookie extensions and onto long-term deals as early as possible, even if it meant taking what amounted to smaller deals in the process.
With Goff and Wentz, this meant signing extensions after three seasons, even though they still had two years left to go on their rookie contracts. Take Wentz’s four-year, $128 million deal. Do simple division and you’ll see that deal coming in at $32 million per season, which was the league’s third-largest average on paper when it was signed. What’s missing there, though, is that the Eagles already had Wentz signed for two years at a total of $26.8 million as part of his rookie deal and folded that into the extension. In reality, the Eagles have Wentz under contract for six years and $154.8 million. His average annual salary is $25.8 million, which is a dramatic difference from the extension terms on paper.
Prescott was an even bigger bargain. As a fourth-round pick in 2016, the Cowboys paid him a little over $4 million combined across his first four years in the NFL. The only downside for the team is that first-round picks like Wentz and Goff have fifth-year options attached to their deals, while a fourth-rounder like Prescott does not. After his third year, the Cowboys reportedly offered him an extension averaging $33 million per season. He declined.
You can see this as greed, although that’s patently unfair, given that Prescott averaged only $1 million per season over his first four years when lesser quarterbacks like Eli Manning and Joe Flacco were making north of $20 million per season over that time frame. The Cowboys couldn’t hand Prescott an extension until the end of his third campaign, but as a result of a CBA he didn’t negotiate, he was likely underpaid to the tune of $80 million or more over the course of his recently expired rookie deal.
His decision to turn down the deal — and the inability of these two sides to find common ground on an extension — comes down to where the market is heading. The Cowboys don’t have any more of those rookie years to use as leverage in driving down his price tag, which is why they need to pay more than what Wentz or Goff received. They’ve suggested that Prescott should take a discount or accept what the team is offering to try to accommodate the organization.
What makes that language particularly jarring is that the Cowboys, more than anybody else in football, have been comfortable paying their stars top-tier money. Ezekiel Elliott, Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, DeMarcus Lawrence, Jaylon Smith, and most recently Amari Cooper have signed massive extensions. Putting those deals in context reveals just how aggressive this team has been in paying top-dollar deals.
Elliott, Smith and Martin were handed the largest average annual salary among players on multiyear deals at their respective positions when they signed new deals. Lawrence and Cooper were given the second-largest average annual salaries, while Smith was fourth. Before them, the Cowboys placed the likes of Sean Lee, Dez Bryant and Travis Frederick in a similar stratosphere. These players weren’t forced to take or even really discuss pay cuts or hometown discounts on their second contracts to stay in Dallas.
Typically, the Cowboys try to account for those salaries on paper by offering the longest contracts in football. Elliott and Martin signed six-year extensions, while Smith was locked up on an eight-year pact. Those deals allow the team to hand out large salaries and then repeatedly restructure those contracts to create short-term cap space. It’s a great plan when everyone stays healthy and productive, but when things go wrong, it can be disastrous. Dallas handed Tony Romo a huge extension in 2013 to help create cap space and then repeatedly restructured the deal; when Romo got injured and lost his job to Prescott, the Cowboys were forced to pay out nearly $20 million in dead money on their cap for their former starter.
All of this gets to the crux of the Prescott contract negotiations: length. The Cowboys have repeatedly leaked elements of various offers, suggesting that they’re willing to give him the second-highest average annual salary in the league while guaranteeing him something close to the $110 million Goff was given by the Rams. Jason Fitzgerald of Over the Cap ran the numbers and projected a logical contract for Prescott coming in at an average annual salary of $35.5 million with a guarantee somewhere around $90 million. (These “guarantees” aren’t the real guarantees, since they’re likely only partial guarantees for injury.) Essentially, he’s going to get somewhere between $32 million and $36 million and have three years of his new deal guaranteed.
Look at things from Prescott’s perspective. The top of the quarterback market perpetually rises as players sign new deals, and Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes are up for new contracts this year. He’s already guaranteed $31.4 million for 2020. If the Cowboys want to franchise him again in 2021, even if the salary cap falls by virtue of missing stadium revenue, Dallas would owe Prescott a 20% raise to $37.7 million next season. He could go year-to-year and make $69.1 million over the next two seasons without having to commit on a longer-term deal.
The biggest reason he would want to wait, as I’ve mentioned before, is what might be coming in 2022 and beyond. The league has already added two playoff teams to the mix for an extra playoff game. Its remaining television deals expire after 2021 (ESPN) and 2022 (CBS, NBC, and FOX). Projections suggest the league could double its rights fees from $7.5 billion to $15 billion.
In the process, the salary cap could skyrocket. The cap stands at $198.6 million and has jumped by an average of about 6% over the past seven seasons. After the league renegotiates the deals, the cap could jump dramatically. As was the case in the NBA, when players who came free at the right time ended up signing massive deals, NFL players will want to time their free agency for the moment after those rights fees hit if the cap rises by 15-20%.
The Cowboys would struggle to franchise tag Prescott in 2022, when it would cost the organization $54.3 million for a one-year deal. He would then become an unrestricted free agent, where he would have a massive amount of leverage in a league in which the cap was either undergoing or about to undergo a dramatic shift forward. After collecting that $69.1 million for two years with the Cowboys, Prescott could hit the market and sign a deal that seems ridiculous right now. Cousins signed a fully guaranteed, three-year, $84 million deal with the Vikings when that average salary represented 15.8% of the cap. Apply that same percentage to a $250 million cap in 2022 and Prescott could sign a three-year deal for $118.5 million, meaning he would take home nearly $188 million over a five-year period from 2020-24. All of that money would be guaranteed and he would get a third crack at free agency before he turns 31.
If Prescott wants to maximize his money, he would go year-to-year and hit free agency. He would run the risk of suffering a catastrophic injury and missing out on future earnings, but he has been healthy as a pro — he has started 64 straight regular-season games — and has significant loss-of-value insurance. The best-case scenario would be for him to strike some middle ground where he signs a deal now and gets to free agency as quickly as possible, which is what we saw from lots of free agents who signed two- and three-year deals this offseason. Prescott would likely prefer a three- or four-year deal. For cap purposes and to avoid an even bigger third contract for him until absolutely necessary, the Cowboys would want a five- or six-year extension for their star quarterback.
The middle ground is a four- or five-year pact, which is where it will come down to the little things. Does Dallas offer a structure that practically guarantees the fourth season, like the Rams did with Goff? Will it hand Prescott a no-tag clause as part of the deal, as it did with Romo? Or will the team make Prescott its best offer on a five-year extension and dare the 26-year-old to blink?
Is Prescott really replaceable?
The biggest argument against the Cowboys paying Prescott has been the idea that he’s simply not worth the money, that the team is better off going with a cheaper quarterback and committing its money elsewhere. That player could be a draft pick or a veteran like Andy Dalton, who Dallas was able to bring in on a one-year, $3 million deal after the 32-year-old was cut by the Bengals. I’ve argued in the past that a team could cycle through young quarterbacks, although that was for a scenario in which the team was trading its signal-caller for the draft picks it would need to target a replacement.
Either way, I’m not sure the Cowboys are that team. For one, they have not shown particularly good taste in quarterbacks. They famously wanted to draft Paxton Lynch and Connor Cook in 2016 and were beaten to the punch for both before settling for Prescott. In 2014, owner Jerry Jones had to be talked out of drafting Johnny Manziel and settled for Martin. Romo was an undrafted free agent in 2013 and even Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones admits that then-quarterbacks coach Sean Payton was the one who found the future CBS analyst.
In between Troy Aikman and Prescott, Dallas used a second-round pick on Quincy Carter and a fourth-rounder on Stephen McGee. Just four of the 79 quarterbacks chosen in the third, fourth, or fifth rounds from 1995-2015 made a Pro Bowl in their first four seasons. Prescott has made two. There’s little reason to believe the Cowboys can just pluck another Prescott out of the draft in the middle rounds on the cheap. It would take a significant trade-up to put them in the position to draft a quarterback who they would expect to be as good as what they have.
The idea that the Cowboys can plug in a veteran like Dalton at a fraction of the price point and get similar results is more plausible, although still unlikely. When a quarterback does well in a small sample, he still typically gets paid; look at Nick Foles‘ contract with the Jaguars and Ryan Tannehill‘s deal with the Titans as recent examples. Even if Dalton were to excel, Dallas likely would be forced to either pay Dalton something in the $25 million range or perpetually cycle through cheap, down-on-their-luck veterans. The Vikings did something like this 25 years ago when they cycled between incumbent Brad Johnson, Jeff George and Randall Cunningham before drafting Daunte Culpepper, but that’s not a long-term recipe for success.
The assumption that the Cowboys can just plug in somebody like Dalton and get Prescott-level results is also worth challenging. There’s unquestionably a perception in some circles that Prescott doesn’t push them toward success and that he’s a passenger as opposed to the driver of the Dallas offense. Let’s examine that next, and in doing so, let’s compare Prescott to Goff and Wentz, classmates who signed lucrative extensions with little of the debate that has surrounded Prescott.
Evaluating Prescott vs. his peers
Brushing with the broadest possible strokes, there’s no evidence suggesting Prescott is an ordinary quarterback. Twenty-five quarterbacks have thrown at least 1,200 passes (300 attempts per year) since Prescott entered the league in 2016. Here’s where he ranks among those quarterbacks, which includes just about every star passer besides Patrick Mahomes, by just about every statistic I could think of:
Pick your favorite stat and you’ll typically find that Prescott ranks in the top 10. The exceptions are sack rate and passing yards per game, where he’s right around league-average. Here’s where the comparables come in handy. When you factor in his rushing yards, Prescott has averaged 265.6 combined passing and rushing yards per game, good for 14th place. Just ahead of him in 13th is Goff, at 267.3 combined passing and rushing yards per game. Fractionally ahead of Goff in 12th? You probably guessed Wentz, who has averaged 267.4 yards per game. The difference between the three amounts to an average of less than two yards per contest.
I’ve included Prescott’s passing statistics and his combined numbers in that table, but an easy way to spot a lacking or incomplete argument regarding him is when his rushing numbers are left out of the equation. Prescott has been an incredibly valuable runner over the past four seasons. He’s second over that time frame among quarterbacks in rushing expected points added (EPA), fifth in rushing yards, third in first downs, and has a league-leading 21 rushing touchdowns. By Football Outsiders’ yards above replacement metric (DYAR), he has produced a league-best 404 DYAR over the past four seasons.
Of course, if the answers here were as clear as simply adding up Prescott’s career totals, I wouldn’t need to write this column. His skeptics discount those numbers as painting an inaccurate or partial truth of his actual performance level. Let’s drill down and see if they’re right by examining some of the common criticisms of the Mississippi State product:
Criticism No. 1: Prescott doesn’t win enough.
The Cowboys are 40-24 over Prescott’s four seasons in the league, good for the NFL’s sixth-best mark. His winning percentage (.625) is better than that of Goff (.611) and Wentz (.571). They’ve each won two divisional titles over that time frame.
Should Prescott have won more frequently? He hasn’t worked alongside dominant defenses. The Cowboys have ranked 18th, 25th, ninth and 19th in defensive DVOA over his four seasons, for an average rank just above 18th. Both of his classmates have enjoyed better defensive play, as Goff’s average defense has ranked slightly better than 12th in DVOA, while Wentz’s average defense has been ninth.
The playoffs! It has to be the playoffs. Prescott has gone 1-2 in three postseason appearances, while both Goff and Wentz have (technically) made it to the Super Bowl. Wentz was injured by the time the Eagles upset the Patriots in Minneapolis in Super Bowl LII; he has only played a total of one quarter of postseason action, having missed the 2017 and 2018 playoffs before suffering a concussion on a Jadeveon Clowney hit early in the first quarter of the 2019 wild-card loss to the Seahawks.
Domonique Foxworth makes a case for why the Cowboys should sign Dak Prescott to a long-term contract.
Goff is 2-2 in the postseason, having lost to the Falcons at home in the 2017 wild-card round before making a run to Super Bowl LIII the following season. He threw for 186 yards in a win over the Cowboys in the divisional round, with the Los Angeles rushing attack racking up 273 yards and three touchdowns. Goff was better in the most impressive playoff win of the bunch, overcoming a disastrous early start to rack up 297 yards and a touchdown in a 26-23 overtime win over the Saints, aided by one famous pass interference non-call. In the Super Bowl, the Patriots dared Goff to beat them and he went 19-of-38 passing for 229 yards with an interception in a 13-3 loss. His career passer rating in the playoffs is 73.6.
What about Prescott’s three appearances? As a rookie, he lost a 34-31 classic to the Packers in which he went 24-of-38 passing for 302 yards with three touchdowns and a pick. Those weren’t empty statistics, either; trailing 28-13 entering the fourth quarter, he led the Cowboys on two consecutive touchdown drives and then ran in a two-pointer to tie the game at 28. After the Cowboys kicked a field goal to take the lead with 1:33 left, he drove the Cowboys 42 yards on five plays to set up a game-tying field goal from Dan Bailey with 35 seconds left.
The Cowboys defense responded by allowing Aaron Rodgers to convert a third-and-20 pass to Jared Cook for 36 yards to set up a season-ending field goal with three seconds left. The Packers would beat the Cowboys in a similar way the following regular season, when a 11-yard Prescott run gave the Cowboys a three-point lead with 1:13 to go, only for Rodgers to drive downfield and hit Davante Adams for a game-winning score.
That was Prescott’s best playoff performance. In the win over the Seahawks in the 2018 wild-card round, he went 22-of-33 for 226 yards with a pick, although he threw a touchdown pass and sneaked in the game-winning score from a yard out. In the loss to the Rams, he went 20-of-32 for 266 yards with a passing and rushing touchdown, the latter of which came down 30-15 with 2:11 to go. Prescott’s playoff passer rating is 95.7, 22 points better than that of Goff. The other two quarterbacks have made it further, but Prescott has contributed more to the postseason cause than either Goff or Wentz.
Criticism No. 2: Prescott isn’t clutch when it matters most.
By the numbers at Pro Football Reference, Prescott has led eight fourth-quarter comeback victories and produced 14 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime. He has done more in those situations than either Wentz (six comebacks, eight game-winning drives) or Goff (six comebacks, seven drives). Over the past four seasons, he is tied for fifth in the league in fourth-quarter comebacks and tied for third in game-winning drives.
Let’s split it a different way. In the fourth quarter and overtime, when the game has been within eight points, Prescott has been excellent; he has the league’s ninth-best passer rating (104.8) and third-best QBR (79.2) when the game is late and within one score. Neither Goff or Wentz can compare. Goff ranks 26th in passer rating (80.9) and 29th in QBR (42.7) in those same moments, while Wentz is 19th in passer rating (87.0) and 19th in QBR (59.6). Prescott also has the best winning percentage in games decided by eight points or fewer at 19-13, while Goff is at a similar 13-9 and Wentz has gone 13-17.
Wentz tends to look good when you split out the numbers by half, which is because the Eagles star has been phenomenal in the third quarter. Going back to that group of 25 passers with 1,200 pass attempts or more over the past four years, Wentz has the league’s best QBR (76.0) in the third quarter. He ranks 15th out of the 25 across the other three quarters and overtime.
Prescott leads the NFL in second quarter QBR over the same time frame; he’s third in QBR in the fourth quarter, ahead of Wentz (10th) and Goff (23rd). I don’t think these quarter-by-quarter splits (or record in close games) mean much of anything, but when you see these quarterbacks compared by their numbers in the second half, Wentz’s advantages are almost always going to be via what he’s done in the third quarter.
Criticism No. 3: The Cowboys are built around Ezekiel Elliott, not Prescott.
My colleague John Parolin addressed this premise in an article last month; it’s worth a read in its own right, but I’ll pass along Parolin’s finding that Prescott’s QBR is actually better without Elliott, one of the league’s best running backs, on the field. (His passer rating drops from 99.6 to 90.3.) Parolin also noted that Prescott has been productive when the Cowboys have gone with an empty backfield, eliminating the threat of an Elliott run.
I’ll add a couple of things. One is that the Cowboys have become a more balanced offense in recent years. Dallas ranked 27th and 29th in early-down pass frequency in 2016 and 2017, but that jumped to 20th and then 18th over the past two seasons. Overall, they have gone from throwing the ball 50.6% of the time in Prescott’s rookie season to 58% of the time last season. They’ve had success with both models; they ranked third in offensive DVOA in 2016, but after falling to 10th in 2017 and 24th in 2018, they had the league’s second-best DVOA in 2019, trailing only the Ravens.
The best case for Prescott struggling without Elliott goes back to the six-game suspension Elliott served during the 2017 season. There’s no denying that the offense cratered without Zeke; after averaging 27.3 points per game over their first eight games, Dallas averaged 17.2 points per game over the subsequent six contests, including three consecutive games with 10 points or fewer.
Dez Bryant, Ezekiel Elliott, Fred Brown and Dak Prescott meet up to conduct a workout consisting of a variety of drills.
It’s worth noting that Elliott’s return to the lineup didn’t solve things, as the Cowboys scored just 18 points over their final two games of the season. As I noted back in 2017, mentioning that Elliott was absent doesn’t begin to tell the whole story. Prescott was also missing his star left tackle Smith for the first two games of that six-game stretch, which were the worst of the bunch. You might remember the first of the two, when journeyman end Adrian Clayborn racked up six sacks, five of which came via abusing Smith replacements Chaz Green and Byron Bell.
Wentz, of course, also has a player whose absence has seemed to foretell a decline in right tackle Lane Johnson, who has missed time via injuries and suspension in each of Wentz’s four pro seasons. With Johnson on the field, Wentz has posted a 68.4 Total QBR, but without his star right tackle, that mark has fallen to 54.1. Wentz’s passer rating has dropped 14.1 points without Johnson on the field.
The other issue in evaluating that six-game Elliott absence is Prescott wasn’t working with much at receiver. His lead wideout was Bryant, whose productivity had slipped dramatically since returning prematurely from a foot injury in 2015. Bryant would be cut after the year and wouldn’t attract much interest before signing a one-year, $1.3 million deal in midseason with the Saints before tearing his Achilles. No. 2 was Terrance Williams, who was cut after the 2018 season and hasn’t surfaced since. The tight end was 35-year-old Jason Witten, who retired after the season before unretiring. Prescott had Cole Beasley, but the lead receiving back was Rod Smith, who bounced around three teams in 2019. This wasn’t exactly a legendary receiving corps at this point, but that leads to another argument …
Criticism No. 4: Prescott has been aided by a great supporting cast.
No one could argue that Prescott will have some of the league’s best weapons in 2020 with Cooper, Elliott, Michael Gallup, and rookie first-round pick CeeDee Lamb. The Cowboys also have two of the best linemen in football in Smith and Martin, and they had a dominant center for Prescott’s first two seasons in Frederick. Frederick slipped a bit after returning from a rare virus in 2019 and then retired, but the Cowboys can still boast one of the league’s best lines on paper.
Prescott’s receivers weren’t always at this level. In 2016 and 2017, he was throwing to Beasley, Bryant, Witten and Williams. Bryant and Witten were big names, but they weren’t their peak selves. With Williams hitting injured reserve early in 2018, Prescott’s top receivers were Beasley, a rookie Gallup, Allen Hurns and Tavon Austin. The Cooper trade helped rescue a struggling Prescott by giving him a viable No. 1 option; the former Raiders standout led the Cowboys in receiving yards in 2018 despite playing only nine games in Dallas.
Even the most optimistic Rams fan would suggest Goff has been surrounded by an excellent supporting cast over the past three seasons; when we saw what had been a healthy offensive line collapse amid injuries and aging last year, Goff fell apart in the process. The former first overall pick posted a passer rating of 34.5 when pressured last season, which ranked last among the 32 starting quarterbacks. Goff was 16th in the league when unpressured.
This argument often revolves around Wentz, who has unquestionably had to deal with dismal receiving corps for stretches, particularly in 2016. He’s absolutely had worse wide receivers than Prescott, with Nelson Agholor, Alshon Jeffery, Jordan Matthews and Dorial Green-Beckham as his four-most targeted wide receivers, but he has also had far more talented tight ends in Zach Ertz, Dallas Goedert and Trey Burton. Prescott has worked with Witten and Blake Jarwin as his primary weapons there. The Eagles have also generally had an excellent, expensively assembled offensive line.
It’s fair to say Prescott has had better weapons to work with than Wentz. One place this argument pops up, though, is in the discussion about drops. While the season-ending Jeffery drop in the 2018 playoffs came on a pass by Foles, Agholor’s propensity for ill-timed drops hit meme territory last season. If Wentz wasn’t stuck relying on Agholor and replacement-level players after guys like Jeffery and DeSean Jackson got hurt, his numbers would be better. It’s a fair argument.
Let’s go back to those 25 quarterbacks. Over the past four years, Wentz has been hit hard by drops. His receivers have dropped 4.1% of his passes, the seventh-highest rate in the league. It’s the opposite end of the spectrum from Goff, whose receivers have dropped a league-low 2.4% of his attempts over that same time frame. Prescott is in the middle, with a drop rate of 3.5%. If you gave Wentz Prescott’s drop rate over the past four years, given Wentz’s rate of 10.8 yards per completion, he would have added a little over 12 catches for 133 yards. That’s three completions per season.
What’s interesting at the same time is that Prescott’s drop rate has actually gotten worse as his receivers have gotten better. Nearly 4% of his passes over the past two years have been dropped, which is the ninth-highest mark in the league and worse than Wentz’s drop rate (3.6%) over that same time frame. Drops don’t tell the whole story in terms of supporting cast, and I’d still prefer the Cowboys’ offense to that of the Eagles or Rams, but I’m not sure the difference between Prescott and Wentz in terms of drops is enough to draw a significant conclusion.
With regards to the offensive line, Parolin noted that Prescott has been one of the best quarterbacks in football when pressured, ranking seventh out of 40-plus qualifiers in QBR. Prescott’s sack rate is one of the lowest marks in the table I used earlier, but I also suspect that’s tied to his ability as a runner, where he’s being sacked as he escapes the pocket and attempts to run. Those sacks are a negative, of course, but he more than makes up for them with his value as a runner.
Criticism No. 5: Prescott makes too many mistakes.
Any Twitter thread arguing that Prescott isn’t worthy of a new deal is going to mix in some clips in which he misses open receivers or holds onto the football too long and gets strip-sacked. Every quarterback in the NFL has this happen; you could make a bad-faith compilation of Mahomes misses early in games from this postseason and ignore the fact that he posted a passer rating of 111.5 in leading Kansas City to a Super Bowl title. The question is whether Prescott has problems at a rate higher than other quarterbacks.
Again, this doesn’t appear to be true. His interception rate is 1.7%, which ranks eighth out of those 25 quarterbacks. It’s better than Goff’s interception rate (2.2%) and is four-hundredths of a percentage point below Wentz, who is at 1.70% to Prescott’s 1.74%.
There were concerns about Prescott’s propensity to fumble after he racked up 12 in 2018. He has 31 over the past four seasons, which ranks 19th out of those 25 passers. It’s a weakness, but it’s also superior to the fumble totals recorded by Goff, who has 35, and Wentz, who has a league-high 48 fumbles over that same time frame. On a per-touch basis, Prescott fumbles once every 79 touches, which is 13th out of the 25-player sample. Goff and Wentz are 23rd and 25th, respectively.
— Around The Home (@AroundtheHorn) May 11, 2020
Missing open receivers? It happens to everyone, but this isn’t a realistic problem for Prescott. According to NFL’s Next Gen Stats, he has had the sixth-lowest rate of open receivers across our 25-passer sample since 2016, meaning he has had fewer open targets to hit than Wentz (ninth) or Goff (19th). When he has had those open receivers, Prescott has completed 82.6% of his passes, which is seventh-best in the league. He has completed those passes at a higher rate than Wentz (81.8%, 21st) or Goff (80.4%, 26th).
NFL Next Gen Stats also has a measure known as completion percentage over expectation, or CPOE, which accounts for the movement of every player on the field and the success rate of similar passes from the past to estimate every quarterback’s chance of completing each pass they throw. If Prescott was missing open receivers and only hitting easy completions, CPOE would tell us he should be completing more of his passes.
He has completed 65.8% of his pro passes. CPOE estimates that Prescott “should” have completed 63.1% of his throws. As a result, CPOE suggests his completion percentage is 2.7 points better than expectation, which is the fifth-best mark in the league against those 25 qualifiers. Again, he’s better by this measure than Wentz (plus-0.3%, 10th ) or Goff (minus-2.4%, 23rd).
Criticism No. 6: Prescott only makes safe throws.
One of the fun things about quarterback arguments is they can go all kinds of ways. Because he started his career as the quarterback in a run-first argument, Prescott still gets the game manager tag thrown in his face when he doesn’t have a big game. Again, we can go to NFL Next Gen Stats for evidence for or against that idea.
As a measure of whether he is challenging the defense, we can look at a stat called “air yards to sticks” or AYTS, which measures the distance between a quarterback’s average pass distance in the air (before it’s caught by a receiver) and the first-down marker. Downfield passers like Jameis Winston and Ryan Fitzpatrick have the league’s deepest AYTS over the past four years, while conservative passers like Brees and Alex Smith rank at the bottom of the list.
Prescott is more aggressive about challenging for first downs than either of his comparables. His average pass has traveled 0.4 yards short of the sticks in the air, which is the eighth-deepest mark in the league. Wentz is just behind him in 11th at 0.5 yards short of the sticks, while Goff is in 17th.
What about throwing into tight windows? Again, Prescott is above-average. Wentz has thrown 19.6% of his passes into tight windows, the fifth-highest rate in the league. Prescott is behind him in eighth at 18.8%, while Goff is down in 24th at 14.7%. Throwing into a tight window isn’t necessarily a virtue if it leads to an incompletion or an interception, but Prescott has completed 41.4% of his tight-window throws over the past four years, the second-best mark in the league behind Brees. Wentz (36.3%) is 12th, while Goff (32.0%) is 22nd.
In looking strictly at air yards, Prescott is also the most aggressive passer of the bunch. His average pass travels 8.2 yards in the air, narrowly ahead of Wentz (8.1) and Goff (7.8), although all three are right around the league-average of 8.0. The three are about identical in terms of passes thrown 15 or more yards downfield, although the order is flipped this time; Goff takes those throws 20.1% of the time, with Wentz in second at 18.9% and Prescott right behind at 18.5%.
Criticism No. 7: Prescott struggles against great teams.
Here’s a place where Prescott has undeniably struggled. As Parolin noted in his piece, Prescott and the Cowboys are just 5-13 against teams that finished the year with 10 or more wins, and the quarterback has been part of the problem. His QBR in those games is just 55.3, down from 72.9 in games where he isn’t going up against a 10-win team.
Goff and Wentz have both been better here, although it has been more about their record than level of play. Wentz is 9-11 in those games, and his QBR is marginally better at 58.3. Goff is 8-12 in the same contests, but his QBR in those games has been 51.8, below that of both Wentz and Prescott.
Let’s look at this another way and consider great defenses. I split out each of the three quarterbacks and measured their performances versus top-10 defenses by DVOA (in each given year) against the remaining 22 teams to see which quarterback both struggled the most against great defenses and lost the most versus his usual performance against the defenses ranked 11 through 32.
Prescott looks the worst of the bunch here. Wentz was clearly the best of the three against great defenses, posting the best passer rating (90.0) and adjusted yards per attempt (7.0). Prescott and Goff were virtually identical in terms of passer rating (82.3 for Prescott, 81.4 for Goff) and AY/A (6.3 for Dak, 6.4 for Goff).
Measured versus their numbers against the lesser defenses, Prescott also dropped off more noticeably than the other two. Wentz was virtually the same against all defenses; his passer rating against the great defense was 94.2% of what it was against the other defenses. Goff was just behind him at 89.1%, while Prescott was well off the pack at 79.7%. By AY/A, the gap was even larger, with him down at 75.5%. Of the various criticisms of him, this seems like the most meaningful and accurate complaint.
Criticism No. 8: Prescott isn’t good enough to win a Super Bowl.
Let me finish up with this one. Given all that I’ve written about Prescott’s performance so far, the idea that he lacks the upside to win a Super Bowl just isn’t supported by recent history. Prescott has been more productive than a number of quarterbacks who have won Super Bowls, including late-stage Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Joe Flacco and Nick Foles. I would argue that he’s better than plenty of quarterbacks who have lost in the Super Bowl, with Goff as the most obvious example.
Maybe you want to frame it differently and suggest that a quarterback needs a certain upside to win a Super Bowl and that Prescott lacks that upside. That’s not supported by the evidence, and even if it were over the past four years, it’s entirely possible that a good quarterback like Prescott could have everything come together for a great, MVP-caliber season. Matt Ryan and Cam Newton are good examples of this phenomenon, and while neither won a Super Bowl, Ryan came close.
Wentz is another quarterback who might fit into that group. Prescott’s career is often compared to Wentz’s 2017 season as proof that Wentz is the better quarterback, which is unrealistic. Wentz’s 2017 season was considerably his best by a number of measures like QBR, AY/A, and ANY/A, with passer rating as the exception.
It was also a year in which he was absolutely dominant on third down (where his 91.7 QBR was nearly 17 points better than the second-placed quarterback, who happened to be Prescott) and in the red zone (97.2, the best mark of the last 10 seasons). Those facets of the game tend to regress toward the mean if they’re not supported by dominant play elsewhere, and they have for Wentz, who ranks 13th in third down QBR and eighth in red zone QBR over the two ensuing seasons. Wentz might very well have had his Newton or Ryan season in 2017, with that season looming as an outlier driven by unsustainably great performance in key spots.
The Bottom Line on Prescott
We’re done with Goff and Wentz comparisons. My point in bringing those two up isn’t to say that Prescott is better than either of his classmates, although you can make a case given the facts laid out above. In a world in which Goff and Wentz were awarded lucrative extensions without many complaints, Prescott has proved that he deserves a similar deal. While he’s not Mahomes, the preponderance of evidence suggests he’s a top-10 quarterback and somewhere in the six-to-eight range. The idea that the Cowboys can just replace him with a cheaper option and get similar production is not supported by evidence or history.
I think that the Cowboys will end up giving in and handing Prescott an extension by July 15, in part because they don’t have to look far to see the alternative. Remember when I mentioned that the only quarterback to be franchise-tagged under similar terms was Cousins? Washington didn’t think Cousins was worth a significant extension, franchised him twice, and then tried to make Cousins look bad by leaking their multiyear offer terms when they were really lowball numbers.
Domonique Foxworth explains why Dak Prescott is under more pressure than Tom Brady this year as Dan Orlovsky loses his patience with Max Kellerman’s Brady take.
Washington got a third-round compensatory pick for Cousins and used it in a trade with the Bills to draft running back Bryce Love and guard Wes Martin. To replace Cousins, it traded a second-round pick to the Chiefs for Alex Smith and gave him a four-year, $94 million extension. The team obviously couldn’t have known Smith was going to suffer a career-threatening leg injury, but even if Smith had stayed healthy, it was trading for a 34-year-old quarterback. Washington was going to need to draft a long-term replacement, and the injury only sped up that process, with the organization using its 2019 first-rounder on Dwayne Haskins.
Washington has now committed two premium picks to try to replace Cousins, who had the fourth-best passer rating in football a year ago. It’s unclear whether new coach Ron Rivera & Co. are done addressing the position in the long term. For whatever Cousins seemed to lack when Washington was making its offers, the alternative has turned out to be worse. The Cowboys can’t afford to make the same mistake and set their franchise back in the process.