By Steve Silverman
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The Dallas Cowboys have pulled a remarkable turnaround this season, one that is destined to go down in NFL annals.
No, I’m not saying the Cowboys are guaranteed to run all the way to the Super Bowl, where they will get the best of the Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders, Pittsburgh Steelers or, ahem, the New England Patriots.
I’m talking about their 2016 draft class, which is bound to rank with the best of the last 10 years and has thrown the Cowboys into a position in which they will be contending in the NFC East and for prominence in the conference for the foreseeable future.
Those two are not only the leading candidates for Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, they are also legitimate MVP candidates. They are the Gold Dust Twins, who may go down in Cowboys history the way Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin are remembered as “the Triplets,” and Roger Staubach and Drew Pearson defined an era in the 1970s for Tom Landry’s powerhouse Dallas teams.
Older fans will remember Don Meredith and “Bullet” Bob Hayes, but that team never reached the heights, thanks to Vince Lombardi and the Green Bay Packers.
Elliott is not a surprise, considering he was taken with the No. 4 pick in the draft. But even though he was highly thought of, he has exceeded expectations with 1,285 rushing yards, a 4.9 yards-per-carry average and 12 rushing touchdowns. He can also catch the ball, having racked up 28 receptions for 332 yards and a score. But it is his wrecking ball running style that has made him into a superstar.
The rest of the league completely whiffed on Prescott, who wasn’t selected until the Cowboys had their second selection in the fourth round, the 135th overall selection. Prescott was viewed as a possible candidate as the team’s quarterback of the future. The starting position belonged to the oft-injured Tony Romo, who fulfilled that potential when he went down with a back injury this summer.
Prescott had fine skills coming out of Mississippi State, and he had improved steadily as quarterback of the Bulldogs. At 6-foot-2 and 226 pounds, Prescott was thick enough to handle the physical beating, and he had the quick feet to get away from pressure.
What scouts had no idea about was Prescott’s maturity, confidence and ability to absorb information quickly. He has handled the adjustment to starting quarterback with ease, and his production has been sensational. He has completed 243 of 358 passes for 2,974 yards with 19 touchdowns and two interceptions. His 67.9 completion percentage is remarkable for a rookie, and he simply will not allow the Cowboys to lose games.
His confidence in the huddle has made a huge difference, and the rest of the Cowboys are feeding off their two rookie sensations.
Unfortunately for the New York Giants and the Cowboys’ other rivals in the NFC East, Elliott and Prescott are not the only rookies who matter. Cornerback Anthony Brown is prominent in their defense, with 49 tackles, five passes defensed and a forced fumble. Second-round choice, outside linebacker Jaylon Smith, has been recovering from a left knee injury all season, but when he comes back next year he is expected to be an impact starter.
But the combination of Elliott and Prescott makes this draft an all-timer.
The 2010 Seattle Seahawks drafted offensive tackle Russell Okung, free safety Earl Thomas, wide receiver Golden Tate and defensive back Kam Chancellor, and that may be the best draft class of the last 10 years. Tate has moved on to Detroit and Okung is with the Broncos this year, but the value that Thomas and Chancellor has brought cannot be overstated.
The New Orleans Saints hit the mother lode 10 years ago when they selected running back Reggie Bush, strong safety Roman Harper, guard Jahri Evans, offensive tackle Zach Strief and wide receiver Marques Colston. That group helped deliver the Saints a Super Bowl.
The Indianapolis Colts had a huge haul in 2012 when they selected QB Andrew Luck, tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen and wide receiver T.Y. Hilton. That class has paid huge dividends and shows no signs of slowing down, even though Fleener is putting his talents on display with the Saints in 2016.
The Pittsburgh Steelers also deserved consideration for their 2010 selections of center Maurkice Pouncey and wide receivers Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. Brown has turned out to be the best receiver in the NFL, while Sanders is a big-play maker for the Denver Broncos.
As good as those draft classes were, the Cowboys have moved to the top of the list. Giants fans will see Elliott and Prescott up close and personal Sunday night, and they will likely see this recurring nightmare for years to come.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @ProFootballBoy