Rest vs. Rust 2021: Can you trust Cowboys QB Dak Prescott coming off his injury?
For years, fantasy managers have debated the merits of a player who’s had time to heal a particular injury versus the overall deterioration that could occur during the rehab process. Whether it’s a veteran stud showing signs of decline or a young turk striving to bounce back from an upended season, FF enthusiasts are always weighing the pros and cons of time spent away from the field.
The Covid-related question marks surrounding 2020 highlighted this concern and inspired me to — with the help of an esteemed orthopedic surgeon — launch Rest vs Rust for 2021. A year later, pangs of the pandemic continue to affect how fans approach the virtual game.
So, we’re running it back … with a new crop of star players looking to regain dominance.
This is Rest vs Rust 2.0.
Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys
Anonymous redshirt. Short-yardage specialist. Backup talent.
Prescott has never not risen to a challenge… and reset the bar.
A year ago, coming off of a career campaign, the critics had finally bought in. After leading 14 game-winning drives in his first three seasons (the most by any QB through three efforts in nearly 60 years) and clearing 4,900 yards (QB2) in his fourth, Prescott had miraculously manifested offensive optimism in Dallas. Then, with the 17th pick in the 2019 draft, the Cowboys selected Oklahoma standout CeeDee Lamb, signaling a commitment to Kellen Moore’s pass-happy approach and Prescott's growth.
Fantasy fans took note. Prescott’s stock soared.
2020 was the year it was all supposed to come together. Amari Cooper had a full offseason in Dallas. Ezekiel Elliott (eventually) got paid. Jason Garrett had exited the equation. Prescott was going to make America’s team great again.
IT. WAS. HAPPENING.
Over the first four weeks of the season, the fourth-round pick out of Mississippi State was the Shield’s brightest star. Averaging over 422 passing yards and 3 total touchdowns per game, Prescott recorded three consecutive top-four fantasy finishes … eclipsing even Patrick Mahomes.
A 6,700-yard season was not to be, however.
On October 11th, a little more than halfway through the third quarter, leading the (of all teams) Giants by one point, Dak rushed up the middle for nine yards and awkwardly twisted his ankle after being tackled. In a matter of seconds — on a routine play out of the shotgun — Prescott suffered a compound right ankle fracture and dislocation, ending his season … and blotting out any residual bits of optimism.
The injury was gruesome and required two surgeries. Close to nine months later — after being fully cleared for all football activities — questions about Prescott’s availability remain. Like all things in Texas, expectations for a comeback are bigly. But what’s a realistic expectation for Dak?
Understanding Dak Prescott's injury
To better understand the extent of Prescott’s injury and fully grasp his rehabilitation process, I enlisted the help of Dr. Alex Weber, an orthopedic surgeon and team physician for the USC Trojans.
Dr. Weber explains: “From the fracture perspective, Dak had an injury similar to Alex Smith. He had a compound fracture, which is also called an open fracture and occurs when the skin is broken and the bone is exposed. Likely because Dak wasn’t on a grass field, the injury wasn’t highly contaminated with bits of dirt and bacteria. Had it been, as we saw with Smith, the risk of infection would have been much higher and could have resulted in numerous additional surgeries.”
But Dak did have a second operation four months after initially going under the knife. Should that be of concern?
According to Dr. Weber, it seemed pretty standard, as he said it was probably “an ankle and joint cleanout wherein the deltoid ligament (on the inside part of the ankle) was stabilized just to reinforce it.” The doctor added, “I’m very positive on Dak’s ability to return full force with no issues as it pertains to the ankle.”
That sounds fantastic. But seeing as the 27-year-old signal caller’s current ADP is in the fourth round and he’s being drafted ahead of Russell Wilson, I asked for more reassurance.
Weber replied simply, “A fracture is a much more predictable recovery and return to sport longevity-wise than an ACL tear, for example. When bones break and are set by good surgeons — of which Dr. Gene Curry is certainly one — they heal predictably and go back to their native rigidity. This allows the patient — in this case, an elite athlete — to resume their normal function.”
The discussion over Dak’s ankle wasn’t entirely positive, however. Dr. Weber did say that Prescott would probably experience “some long-term consequence in terms of post-traumatic arthritis, meaning that the joint will get stiff and arthritic over time.” He quickly added, though, that it would likely occur “well after his playing career is over.”
So we should expect Dak to be 100 percent by Week 1, right?
Not so fast.
Dak Prescott's seasonal outlook for 2021
The physical part of the game is obvious. But the mental piece of it — the part that can’t be captured in graphs and pie charts — might affect Dak’s start to 2021. As Dr. Weber points out, “There’s always a period of time when, mentally, players returning from injury need to get back into the flow of football. There might be a little PTSD that crops up in early September … but once he gets his competitive legs back that will dissipate quickly.”
When looking at the Cowboys schedule, that analysis seems spot on.
The Boys will open the 2021 season on the road facing a Bucs’ defense that not only held the Chiefs to nine points in the Super Bowl but also accumulated 58 sacks throughout their championship-winning campaign. Per Bet MGM, Tampa Bay is currently favored by 6.5 points. While the total is set at 51.5 — which indicates a good amount of passing for Dak — facing Tampa’s d-line does not allow for a casual shaking off of rust … but more of having it forcibly shook off.
Ten days later Jerry and his World will travel again, this time to Los Angeles to face the Chargers at SoFi. With one regular-season contest under his belt, Head Coach Brandon Staley will attempt to further unlock a squad brimming with elite potential. Led by All-Pro talents Joey Bosa and Derwin James (who could also be a Rest vs. Rust candidate) and including the addition of outside CB Asante Samuel Jr., the Chargers defense is — at worst — a top-15 unit. While I expect Dak to fare better in Cali than Florida, this matchup presents a high degree of difficulty as well.
By Week 3, however, the load should lift. Home for three consecutive games, the Cowboys face off against the Eagles, Panthers, and Giants. While the Week 5 tilt versus New York presents a sizable challenge (the G-Men ranked No. 9 in points allowed last year) and inescapable irony due to the timing, the previous two contests should have Dak loose and ready for a rematch.
The yips might be an issue in the first pair of games, but health shouldn’t be a problem. Before his injury, Dak had never missed a pro start, recording a total of 69 games over five years. He was an iron man in college, too. Sidelined for only two games with an elbow sprain in 2013, the former Bulldog’s on-field attendance during his four years in Starkville was, otherwise, sterling.
And let’s be honest, the Jones family wouldn’t sign him to a four-year deal worth $160 million ($126 million guaranteed) if they weren’t convinced of a comeback. Jerry has always been brazen with Benjamins, but making Dak the second-highest-paid QB in the league conveys confidence and simultaneously applies pressure.
Vegas appears to believe he’ll meet the towering demands, as Prescott is the favorite (+180) to secure Comeback Player of the Year honors and the Cowboys are the leading bet to win the division (+115).
All of this bodes well for fantasy managers eager to feel great about one of the NFL’s most feel-good stories. The expert consensus-ranked QB5, enlisting Prescott’s services requires a hefty investment. But the ROI looks promising. With the o-line back to health, the defense improved but still green, and a proper preseason for the loaded receiving corps in place, Dak should flirt with 5,000 passing yards in 2021.
In a recent Twitter poll, over 40 percent of voters agreed that an average of at least 300 passing yards per contest was a reasonable benchmark for Prescott to achieve. Factor in another 20 rushing yards per game (he’s averaged over 305 rushing yards per year since 2016, never falling outside of the top-nine, save 2020) and an uptick in red-zone completions?
A top-three to five fantasy finish will happen … for real this time.
Are you all-in on Dak this fall? Let Liz know on social @LizLoza_FF