Who was driving force that brought Dak Prescott to Cowboys and why did it take so long?

Charles RobinsonNFL columnist

Seven months later, there is still some dispute about why so many NFL teams missed on Dak Prescott. Surveying general managers, coaches and personnel evaluators delivers a wide swath of answers. From the obvious – like Prescott’s DUI charge before the draft – to the less discernable, like teams overestimating the Mississippi State talent surrounding Prescott.

Even with the Dallas Cowboys – who took four rounds and a scuttled trade effort to make the right call – there is a lack of clarity concerning where exactly Prescott fit into the draft plans. One team source told Yahoo Sports four quarterbacks drew a better collective grade from the organization – Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, Paxton Lynch and Connor Cook. But another says that six quarterbacks were higher than Prescott on the Dallas draft board – the aforementioned quartet, plus Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel.

So before team owner Jerry Jones can deliver a wink and tell it differently, it’s worth shining a light on how everyone else got this wrong before Dallas finally got it right.

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Dak Prescott proved to be a little better than Jameill Showers for the Cowboys. (Getty Images)
Dak Prescott proved to be a little better than Jameill Showers for the Cowboys. (Getty Images)

“It was a coaching staff pick,” one Cowboys source said. “[The personnel staff] can be honest about that. If anyone is most responsible for him being taken, the coaches liked him maybe a little more than the scouts did. [The scouts] thought they already had a Dak on the roster in Jameill Showers.”

It turns out, much to the Cowboys’ delight and surprise, they didn’t have a Dak on the roster. And that they do now has been a well-chronicled bit of good fortune. But it wasn’t all luck. It turns out Dallas did far more homework on Prescott than any other team in the NFL draft. And that’s ultimately why the Cowboys eventually made the selection that everyone else missed.

“Of all the players I’ve coached in my entire career, the Cowboys inquired with me personally more about Dak than any team – and more than any player ever,” Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen said. “I talked to the position coach. I talked to the coordinator. I talked to the head coach.”

So how did Dak Prescott end up falling to the fourth round, and how exactly did Dallas end up making the pick that others didn’t? After talking to Mullen and more than a dozen coaching, scouting and executive sources, here were the most interesting tidbits involving the many ups and downs of Dak …

Prescott on the field

The overriding thread about Prescott that might have hurt him most was the Mississippi State offense. Unless a quarterback is elite in several areas, the spread offense and lack of huddle time becomes an instant downward pressure on prospects. Conversely, proficient pro-style quarterbacks get lifted in evaluations. Prescott versus Cook of Michigan State was a prime example of this.

Just from the translation of tape standpoint, it was universal that Cook’s evaluation became what he likely could do on the field in the NFL vs. what Prescott might not be able to do. One scout even related a story about sitting in a press box watching Prescott in college and having a Tim Tebow debate with another evaluator – despite Prescott’s game being tangibly different than Tebow’s.

“It’s really on the top shelf of every report,” an evaluator said of Prescott running a no-huddle spread offense. “For us, the way we break guys down, you get past the measurable things – does he have the size we’re looking for and things like that – and it’s right into, ‘What offense is he running and what can we translate easily?’ If the answer is, ‘It looks nothing like what we do,’ then that is a project player and the conversation goes into that direction, which at quarterback is not a good direction.”

A number of evaluators provided a wide array of things they might have underestimated about Prescott. Three reasons resonated:

• Several scouts said that it wasn’t until they viewed this year’s Mississippi State draft class (which is very shallow) that they realized Prescott likely wasn’t given enough credit for elevating parts of the program. Some scouts didn’t realize there was far less NFL talent surrounding Prescott than they initially believed. And knowing that last year might have raised his profile.

• Several evaluators said Prescott’s ability to retain new information and adapt himself to an NFL system is hard to accurately measure based on a handful of workouts. Basically, a player can display this kind of thing on a whiteboard or in classroom sessions, but a team may never fully know the depth of this until a player is in its system. Mullen said the Cowboys likely had a better handle on this than most, but even Dallas couldn’t have known that Prescott would translate so well, and so quickly, to a full-fledged pro-style offense.

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

• Across the board, sources who saw Prescott said he had solid workouts but didn’t blow away onlookers. Interestingly, this appeared to be something that carried over after the draft. As one Cowboys source noted, Prescott had bright moments in offseason camps and the OTAs, but it wasn’t until he started playing in games that he began to take large strides. Even Mullen admitted that workouts weren’t Prescott’s strengths. The same Mullen who went as far as to tell a Dallas scout that Prescott was worthy of being the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.

“He’s never going to have the strongest arm,” Mullen said. “As I’ve told people when he went to the draft, I’m sure if you go to a pro workout, there are guys that are going to look better within that workout. I don’t know if you put 10 other guys on offense and 11 out there on defense against him, there’s going to be anybody better. But there [are] guys if you go put them in shorts and have them throw routes, their release might look prettier. Their arm might look stronger. But as far as managing the game and doing what you need to do to win games as a quarterback, I don’t know if you’ll find somebody better.

“He won at Mississippi State. He led us to No. 1 and that’s never happened in 118 years before. He knows how to win.”

Prescott off the field

A handful of personnel evaluators said they were aware of the video that came out when Prescott was jumped while on spring break in March of 2015. In it, Prescott appears to stumble to his feet in a parking lot after a group of men kicked him in the head and hit him in the face with a bottle. While Prescott and his teammates appeared to be the victims in the attack, it was the kind of thing that raised concerns and made its way into the character portions of scouting reports.

That video also caused at least some teams to do more advanced homework on Prescott’s social life at Mississippi State, including how often he was in campus bars, whether he was typically a handful when he was out at night and whether there were other fights or incidents in Starkville that never made it into the public eye. At the end of their work, some teams walked away believing Prescott’s social life was lively enough that his spring break run-in, even if it wasn’t his fault, was an example of him occasionally opening himself up to problems. That evaluation was further accentuated when Prescott was arrested for DUI and speeding in March, less than two months before the draft. Prescott was ultimately found not guilty in the case, but in some minds, the incidents cemented negative outlooks. One NFC executive joked that if a college quarterback is on TMZ more than once for something negative, he gets moved to an ancillary “high risk” draft board – and Prescott was on there twice.

“It was a little bit like, OK, is this a Johnny Manziel thing again?” the executive said. “A lot of people at [Mississippi State] came to his defense, but for me the off-field concern was a solid part of [Dak’s] evaluation. There were other guys who looked a little better in that respect and some who probably looked a lot worse. But it was there. I’ll just leave it at that.”

One of Dak Prescott’s challenges during the draft process was proving he could go from a spread offense to a pro-style scheme. (Getty Images)
One of Dak Prescott’s challenges during the draft process was proving he could go from a spread offense to a pro-style scheme. (Getty Images)

Why Dallas took him

The Cowboys’ selection of Prescott has a lot of layers. Yes, they attempted to trade up in the draft for Lynch. And yes, by all accounts they would have taken Cook (and maybe Brissett) instead of Prescott if either had still been on the draft board in the fourth round. In that context, they got lucky.

That said, Dallas didn’t just grab Prescott because he was the only guy available. Again, a source said that Louisiana Tech’s Jeff Driskel was ahead of Prescott on the board, but that it ultimately came down to what player the coaching staff wanted as a quarterback project. And the staff overwhelmingly agreed that Prescott was that guy. While the scouts saw him as another iteration of Showers, the coaches thought he had some hybrid qualities that placed him somewhere on the continuum between Showers and Tony Romo. And thus far, that assessment appears to be dead-on.

So who was most responsible on the Dallas coaching staff? There are varying opinions. What’s clear is that head coach Jason Garrett, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson all liked Prescott and thought he was a worthwhile project. But Garrett had some concerns about Prescott’s off-field incidents and made a point to drill into him about it in their personal meetings. And Linehan? He remained a big Kellen Moore backer behind Romo, but believed Prescott had the skills to develop down the line.

Ultimately, the driving force that tipped the scales seems to have been Wilson, who went all over the map looking at Prescott. In terms of overall assessment and scouting, Wilson’s work on Prescott’s on-field abilities might have had the most depth. So there is merit in saying that Wilson may have planted the seed that was ultimately fed and cultivated by Garrett and Linehan.

If not Dallas, where?

The “where else?” question is interesting because nobody really knows. In the personnel world, everyone is guessing everyone else’s poker hand when it comes to the NFL draft. But a number of evaluators believe if they were reading the landscape correctly that the Denver Broncos ultimately would have taken Prescott if they hadn’t pulled off the trade to land Lynch in the first round. Prescott spent time with the Broncos, who also did a fair amount of work on him at Mississippi State. All of which is an amazing twist in hindsight since it was Denver’s trade with the Seattle Seahawks (and the Cowboys refusing to pull trigger on it first) that ultimately began a chain of events that delivered Lynch to the Broncos and then ultimately finished with Prescott landing in Dallas.

In essence, the two quarterback situations could easily be reversed right now, with Lynch starting in Dallas and Prescott on the bench (or even starting) with the Broncos.

“I know [Broncos head coach] Gary Kubiak liked Dak,” one personnel evaluator said. “I know [Broncos general manager] John Elway also liked Dak. … He fit right into what they were looking for. Maybe they don’t take him until later [in the draft], but I don’t think Dak Prescott would have ever made it to the fourth round if Denver didn’t get Paxton first. … I’m convinced he was somewhere in [Denver’s] backup plan.”

Alas, it didn’t work out that way. Much to the delight of the Cowboys and their faithful, circumstance (and some homework) gifted Dak Prescott to Dallas. But it took everyone missing – even Dallas a few times – to make that happen.

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