Dallas Cowboys banking on Dak Prescott's leadership to elevate inexperienced receivers

OXNARD, Calif. -- The Dallas Cowboys are asking a lot of Dak Prescott. To lead. To be a playmaker. To run if he needs to run. And to teach.

It’s almost an obligation for playing the most important position and having a $40 million-a-year contract.

“I don’t know if somebody sat down and asked me to do more necessarily but I know what’s expected,” Prescott said. “I know being the quarterback of this team, I know being a quarterback of whatever team you are, what’s expected in your role and responsibility.”

But this season is a little different because of changes and injuries at wide receiver. Amari Cooper is with the Cleveland Browns after a trade. Cedrick Wilson, who tied for second on the team with six touchdown catches in 2021, is with the Miami Dolphins. Michael Gallup will miss at least the first game of the season as he continues to rehab from a torn ACL in his left knee. James Washington suffered a broken foot early in camp.

Yes, Prescott has CeeDee Lamb (79 receptions, 1,102 yards in 2021) back, and how the Cowboys construct their passing game will be different this season in their usage of tight ends and running backs, but they are asking Prescott to elevate a receiver group with little experience so the offense stays on track in 2022.

Third-round pick Jalen Tolbert and undrafted Dennis Houston have taken a good chunk of the snaps with the first team alongside Lamb. Noah Brown is in his sixth year but has never caught more than 16 passes in a season. In the past few days, 2021 fifth-round pick Simi Fehoko has come on strong.

Owner and general manager Jerry Jones continues to say he is fine with what the team has at wide receiver.

He is fine with it because of Prescott.

“He can do that. I especially think he can do it with what we’re trying to do with [running back Tony] Pollard or what we’re trying to do with [tight end Dalton] Schultz,” Jones said. “You know Dak’s going to take it to the right guy. ... Dak’s going to go as good as anybody there is out here throwing the ball at what the defense gives you.”

In 2018, the Cowboys tried to work with a similarly green group at wide receiver. They cut Dez Bryant after the 2017 season and opted to go with a receiver-by-committee approach with the likes of Allen Hurns, Deonte Thompson, Cole Beasley and Gallup, then a rookie. This was also the first year Prescott did not have tight end Jason Witten, who had retired.

In their first seven games, the Cowboys scored 20 or fewer points five times. Prescott topped 208 passing yards just twice. He completed 62% of his passes and had eight touchdowns and four interceptions. The Cowboys had a 3-4 record.

Then they gave up a first-round pick to acquire Cooper from the Oakland Raiders and the passing game started to flourish as the Cowboys rebounded to finish 10-6 and won a playoff game.

Prescott sees this season's receiver group as “very, very different” than 2018's.

“We've got a guy that, in CeeDee, to start the camp off that we didn't have like that that year. That's a big difference there just to begin,” Prescott said. “As well as my growth and my maturity as a quarterback and just this whole game, as well as elevating these other guys. ...

"Tight ends that can bring these other guys up with me as well -- and it's not necessarily just on me. That's also where our passing game is going to evolve. We got a guy like [Pollard] that can get out there as well, so yeah, we'll be fine."

Still, Prescott is trying to speed up the development of the offense whenever he can. During one 12-play stretch of practice, he sought out three players -- tight end Sean McKeon, running back Ezekiel Elliott and wide receiver T.J. Vasher -- after a play.

“Details,” Prescott said. “Maybe it’s what I saw. Maybe it’s what they didn’t see or asking them why they did that so we can be on the same page. We’ve got to be focused on the details and our discipline.”

Tolbert and Houston said Prescott is constantly going over things with them and the rest of the young receivers to relay what he wants.

“He gives me something every day,” Tolbert said. “Honestly, consistency. You do one thing, it’s over. So next day you come out, you got to continue to keep doing good and good and good. One good day is not good enough.”

To coach Mike McCarthy, this is what happens when a player is fully aligned at his physical and mental peaks.

“[Prescott] sets the tempo and pace of operation, command. All those little things he’s excellent in that. It’s important to compete and perform at a high level. He’s definitely in that realm,” McCarthy said. “But it’s the post-snap conversations and little things. I think that’s all part of the maturation of your offense, the quarterback with the perimeter players, particularly the younger players, I think he does a really good job of that.”