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NFL Draft

What Can Cowboys Fans Expect From Ben DiNucci?

  • The Draft Network
  • October 27, 2020
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Ben DiNucci. No, he’s not a Jake Peralta character or my Mafia alter ego. He’s the Dallas Cowboys’ starting quarterback on Sunday night.

DiNucci was a Pitt transfer to JMU after rocking Pennsylvania high school record books as the first passer in state history to throw for more than 4,000 yards in one season. DiNucci only ever started for the Panthers in relief of injured quarterbacks higher above him on the depth chart, and after struggling to end the 2017 season, was benched for current starter and future NFLer Kenny Pickett, who galvanized the Panthers to a win over No. 2 Miami Hurricanes in his first career start.

Pickett had a firm grip on the starting job then, and DiNucci entered the transfer portal and ended up at James Madison, where the Dukes were coming off of an undefeated regular season and national championship loss to North Dakota State in the FCS Championship. Two-year starter and FCS All-American quarterback Bryan Schor was graduating, and the Dukes needed a quick reload at quarterback to stay atop the country’s rankings.

DiNucci was that guy. In his senior season, DiNucci was the CAA Offensive Player of the Year, posting passing yards, passing touchdowns, and total offense marks that ranked second in the JMU record books. He and new head coach Curt Cignetti pulled James Madison once again to the FCS National Championship game, only to lose again to North Dakota State 20-28, this time at the hands of freshman phenom Trey Lance.

DiNucci did not get much run during the NFL draft process. Only exploding into relevancy with his senior season, DiNucci was not on the watchlists for the showcase games in the draft cycle, and his performance at the FCS level wasn't enough to draw their eyes away. DiNucci was not an NFL Scouting Combine invite, and with COVID-19 canceling the Dukes’ pro day, DiNucci’s best gambit was to post a Pro Day-like workout with his positional coach and quarterback savant Quincy Avery and garner the league’s attention that way. 

His name wouldn’t be called until Round 7, when the Cowboys grabbed DiNucci to prevent him from signing in free agency with a team closer to home and with a weaker depth chart. The legend goes that DiNucci’s connection with the Cowboys was the reason they selected him: Mike McCarthy’s brother coached DiNucci’s eighth-grade basketball team in Wexford, PA. DiNucci told McCarthy so at the FCS National Title Game in 2019 in Dallas, Texas, when they ended up in a random elevator ride together.

To whatever degree that conversation put DiNucci on McCarthy’s radar, the pebble in the pond has had drastic repercussions. With Dak Prescott’s devastating ankle injury and Andy Dalton’s horrible concussion taking both the Cowboys’ top-tier starter and high-quality backup out of the lineup in three short weeks, DiNucci is suddenly the starter in Dallas.

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your perspective, the Cowboys seem to acknowledge that they are out of playoff contention this year, even in the putrid NFC East. EDGE Everson Griffen, who they signed this offseason as the final veteran piece on a competitive defense, is now on the trade block after he, and the unit as a whole, have sorely disappointed. The entire offensive line has been lost to injury and no matter who is under center, they don't have the protection necessary to consistently push the ball downfield, and the running game is suffering likewise despite the efforts of highly-paid, fumble-prone Ezekiel Elliott.

DiNucci isn’t going to make any of that better. The same issues that plagued the Cowboys through their 2-3 start in Prescott’s early start to the season, and their 0-2 run with Dalton at the helm, will continue to plague the Cowboys in DiNucci’s tenure, however short it is. Without Prescott’s heroics, the Dalton-led offense has only generated 13 points across two games; with DiNucci, it could be even worse.

Or it could be… not. DiNucci’s scouting report details a rather fearless and mobile passer who understands how to manipulate arm angles and buy space to make late throws underneath. He’s adept at getting to his check-downs just as the rush arrives and his ability to buy time allows him to work through more progressions than you’d expect of a young quarterback. DiNucci is reminiscent of Trevor Siemian (or Marc Bulger, if you ask McCarthy) in his upright stance and tricky releases, and at times his footwork prevents him from putting the necessary zip on tight-window throws. But as a touch thrower, he has the necessary field understanding and placement to make all of the NFL throws.

And the competitive toughness with DiNucci is evident, even though he mostly just took sacks and suffered behind the awful Cowboys offensive line. DiNucci had a goal-line and short-yardage running package at James Madison reminiscent of what the Cowboys have with Prescott, and he can hit layered throws in the intermediate levels. While he is uninspiring physically and guilty of turnover-worthy mistakes, he doesn’t take anything out of the Cowboys’ playbook—at least, nothing more than Dalton did, or the offensive line does.

So no, the Cowboys are probably not going to start winning games with their third-string quarterback. But he is a plucky rookie who I imagine will juice up the young players a bit and at least give the Cowboys’ offense the spark of new faith. And if he proves competent, that makes the Cowboys’ tempestuous quarterback outlook at least a bit neater at the QB2 position moving forward. Small victories are all Cowboys’ fans can take nowadays anyway.

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