Dak Prescott Was the Right Pick for Offensive Rookie of the Year

Prescott went from fourth-round depth quarterback to rookie sensation in 2016, and he deserved to be named offensive rookie of the year.

Some days, everything goes right.

The alarm goes off, but instead of that horrible buzzing sound you usually hear, tiny songbirds softly hum you into a warm, fuzzy, but aware and energized mode. The sun is bright and refreshing, welcoming you into the day. The coffee burbles as it tumbles from the brew basket into your mug, and the toast is a perfect golden brown as it dings! out of the toaster and right onto your plate.

Some days, everything is perfect, and that must be exactly what Dallas Cowboys rookie quarterback Dak Prescott felt on a magical 13 of his Sundays this past fall.

After trudging through the gloom and weight of being a fourth-round selection -- and the eighth quarterback off the board -- in the 2016 NFL Draft, Prescott stepped up into the Cowboys’ starting role under center to seize a golden opportunity. He led the Cowboys to a 13-win season and then won the Offensive Rookie of the Year award this past weekend.

2016 came up all roses for Dak Prescott, and the voters made exactly the right choice. Here’s why.

Feelin’ Groovy

As mentioned before, Prescott led the charge for the Cowboys’ bounce-back 13-win season that put them in the driver’s seat for the NFC this season. This is significant because Prescott is just the eighth rookie quarterback in NFL history to earn double-digit wins, and only he and Ben Roethlisberger have 12 or more.

But we know that “QB Wins” are not the most reliable statistic for judging a quarterback’s value alone; the whole team factors into those wins, including the defense. That’s why we at numberFire prefer to isolate a player’s value added in a different way -- by Net Expected Points (NEP).

NEP is a metric that describes the contribution a play (or player) makes to their team’s chances of scoring. By adding down-and-distance value to standard box score information, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

When we compare Prescott’s numbers to the context of the 70 rookie quarterbacks to drop back at least 100 times since 2000 (the furthest back we have NEP data), we can see that his 0.29 Passing NEP per drop back on 484 plays is almost 50 percent better than the likes of Matt Ryan, Russell Wilson, and Marc Bulger, the next-best three rookie quarterbacks -- all at 0.20.

His 53.72 percent Passing Success Rate -- the percent of passing plays that create positive NEP -- was one of just four marks above 50.00 and was significantly better than Roethlisberger’s whopping 52.31 percent.

Yeah, that’s pretty darn good.

Even when we compare these players’ production rates to the annual average to help account for the shift in offensive efficiency in recent seasons, Prescott’s performance was still ridiculously good.

The top-10 rookie passers by normalized Passing NEP per drop back are below.

Year Player Team Drop Backs Pass NEP/P vs.
Season Avg.
2000 Aaron Brooks NO 209 0.18
2002 Marc Bulger STL 226 0.18
2016 Dak Prescott DAL 484 0.17
2004 Ben Roethlisberger PIT 325 0.17
2008 Matt Ryan ATL 450 0.15
2012 Russell Wilson SEA 426 0.14
2012 Robert Griffin III WAS 427 0.11
2011 Cam Newton CAR 553 0.09
2006 Matt Leinart ARI 398 0.04
2015 A.J. McCarron CIN 131 0.03

This is all great, but even more impressively, Prescott’s first year in the pros placed him among the best in the league this season. Who expects a fourth-round rookie to outplay potential Hall of Famers?

The table below shows Prescott’s production this year by Passing NEP (total and per-drop back) as well as his Passing Success Rate. The ranking among the 39 quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs this year is in parentheses.

How good was Dak?

Player Team Drop Backs Pass NEP Pass NEP/P Pass Succ. %
Dak Prescott DAL 484 (23rd) 140.42 (6th) 0.29 (3rd) 53.72% (3rd)

In short, as the young-uns (like Prescott) might say: it was lit.

Despite a below-average volume of passing plays, Prescott still earned the sixth-most Passing NEP. He was scary-efficient and effective, ranking behind only Matt Ryan and Tom Brady this year (you know, those two guys who played in the Super Bowl) in Passing NEP per play and behind just Ryan and Drew Brees in Success Rate.

Without the pedigree of an early-round draft pick, Prescott didn’t just create the best rookie season in recent memory; he was playing among the best of the seasoned pros of the NFL in just his first year in the league.

Better Together

Only two players received first-place votes for Offensive Rookie of the Year: Prescott and teammate running back Ezekiel Elliott. Prescott edged out Elliott by just seven votes, 28.5 to 21.5, but he absolutely deserved the award over the Cowboys’ first-round rushing star.

The table below shows Prescott and Elliott’s Total NEP production -- the sum of Passing, Rushing, and Reception NEP -- this year compared.

Player Total NEP Total NEP/Opp. Pos Avg
Dak Prescott 172.23 0.33 0.13
Ezekiel Elliott 57.97 0.16 0.06

In full, Prescott produced almost triple the value that Elliott did. Even when we control for the larger amount of drop backs and rushes that quarterbacks have over running back opportunities (rushes plus targets), Prescott’s Total NEP per opportunity was double Elliott’s rate.

The last complication we run into is that rushing the ball is inherently less efficient than passing -- and therefore Rushing NEP is less valuable than Passing NEP -- so running backs almost always will have lower NEP production than quarterbacks. That's a key reason why Passing NEP has a stronger relationship with winning than Rushing NEP does.

We can control for this by looking at the average Total NEP per play for each position and subtracting that from the two players’ Total NEP per play. When we do this, Prescott was still producing 0.20 NEP per play more than the average quarterback, while Elliott produced 0.10 NEP per play more than the average running back in 2016.

There’s no other way to slice it: Prescott took the league by storm this year after slipping into the league nearly unnoticed. The Cowboys never thought he would be the passer whose name they’d want to call on draft day, but I would bet dollars to donuts they -- and he -- are glad they did now.