After Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott suffered a season-ending injury on Sunday, the Cowboys will now continue on with Andy Dalton under center, but they will also move QB Ben DiNucci up the depth chart. This is an unfortunate predicament, even for the 2-3 Cowboys, because this injury is unlike the Tony Romo injury in 2015 because the NFC East division is an absolute train wreck.
There is a chance that the Cowboys can win the division behind the arm of well-compensated backup quarterback Dalton. But what do the Cowboys have with the unknown rookie, DiNucci? It would be good to get to know the young standout from James Madison if he were to ever find himself taking snaps in 2020.
Ben DiNucci, Cowboys’ QB looks somewhat familiar
Growth in play never led to growth in status with teams
Personal position coaches far and wide often go to bat for the players they train, and quarterback guru Quincy Avery made no qualms stepping up, making calls, and telling everybody he could about DiNucci before and during the NFL Draft cycle. And despite that, the young gunslinger from a small town just north of Pittsburgh didn’t get an invitation to any of the larger showcase games. The Senior Bowl didn’t call. The East-West Shrine Bowl didn’t call. The NFLPA Bowl didn’t call.
That is one of the downfalls of really breaking out as a redshirt senior at an FCS school. These all-star games have a solid idea of the guys they want prior to the season. They all build boards filled with potential candidates, and not much before his final year at James Madison made him one. In his 2018 season, he threw for under 2300 yards with 16 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. His original stint at Pittsburgh was forgettable.
But when he and Avery got into the lab in their quest to improve DiNucci’s game, the resistance training Avery introduced naturally morphed DiNucci’s mechanics into the shortstop-style delivery we see now. He’d go on to improve his yards-per-attempt average by 1.7 yards from his junior to senior season while throwing 29 touchdowns to only six interceptions and adding another seven touchdowns on the ground (he had nine in 2018.)
He improved, and everybody missed it.
Ben DiNucci is the modern mold of an NFL QB
It’s incredibly difficult to play quarterback in the NFL or anywhere in 2020 without being mobile enough to avoid pressure and make plays out of structure. Offensive line play has not held up to the evolution of the modern-day pass rusher, and it shows in the lack of statuesque players we’ve seen prosper in the past.
Because college football is still living in prehistoric times with their stat collection, it’s difficult to get a feel for a quarterback’s rushing ability because they account for sacks in quarterback rush yards. But DiNucci (if the FCS accounts for rushing stats the way the FBS does) ran for 4.7 yards-per-rush despite that, and he was no stranger to making plays with his feet with five games of more than 10 attempts in 2019.
But with DiNucci, it’s about how he uses his feet as a passer that’s exciting. Dallas Cowboys COO and money pincher Stephen Jones made it no secret that they felt some type of way when they sat down to watch DiNucci play. When I watched him originally I saw flashes of Romo in his game, and Jones said as much after they drafted him.
Traits of the new backup
He doesn’t have a howitzer of an arm, but he has an easy-flowing three-quarters release that is reminiscent of a shortstop slinging a ball over to first base. There were multiple occasions on tape where DiNucci had to fit balls into tight windows down the field, and he was able to in a plethora of different throwing platforms.
And that’s the important thing. When DiNucci is off-platform, his release is so effortless, and he generates good velocity through the zone because of his elbow velocity and ideal extension through the release.
If DiNucci does get time as a rookie, his ability on the hoof as a passer should be taken advantage of. He loves delivering passes rolling right, and he does a good job buying time behind the line to deliver passes in those instances. His general ball placement to the short and intermediate areas of the field is good. He also showed quite a few examples of dropping passes in the bucket downfield and even uncorking some (relative) lasers downfield.
He looked to have been given free rein of the offense pre-snap, changing plays before the snap while at JMU. There were plenty of instances on tape where DiNucci looked incredibly smooth while throwing in rhythm on first or second reads. He didn’t display many issues keeping his head up and on the secondary despite free rushers bearing down on him. He also showed a good understanding of how to use the hard count to get free plays in college, and it will be interesting to see if that continues if he steps onto the field in the NFL.
DiNucci still needs to fine-tune his understanding of trajectory. There are times when he will feather passes instead of driving passes in or driving passes that should have more air underneath them. He’s certainly not a finished product, but he is an entertaining player with some sharpened tools that should continue to be honed throughout his young career.
Hopefully, Ben DiNucci can turn into something that the Cowboys can work with at the QB position, either as the long-term backup to Prescott when he comes back healthy or flipped for draft capital.