2011 NFL Draft Rumors: Cowboys To Address O-Line Via Free Agency?

A little over a week left before the draft and the rumors, speculations and other draft news are almost starting to come faster than we can keep track of.

There's a report out by Tony Pauline on draftinsider.net that the Cowboys are seriously considering signing a veteran free agent tackle and taking a defensive lineman with their first choice.

After the break, we look at what Tony Pauline wrote in detail, we look at how offensive rookie linemen have performed the last two years and who the available free agents could be.

Here's what Tony Puline wrote yesterday:

The Dallas Cowboys may deviate from taking Tyron Smith with the 9th pick if they can’t trade down. We hear the recent knee issues which have surfaced on the junior tackle from USC have not scared the team but they are also considering picking up a veteran free agent tackle, once free agency begins, then taking a defensive lineman with their first choice.

The thinking is a veteran free agent tackle could break into the starting line-up sooner than Smith, especially since the lockout will reduce every rookies time spent in mini-camp, OTA’s, etc. Sources have said the defensive lineman they are targeting is Cameron Jordan - in our minds the most underrated player in this draft. Ultimately they’d still prefer to trade down, collect some extra picks and then select an offensive tackle later in the first frame. The other team very high on Cameron Jordan at this point are the Washington Redskins

Pauline raises a valid point. Given the uncertainty surrounding the CBA, the inability of rookies to spend time practicing and learning with their teams is a real issue. Do you draft a prospect who may be ready to start after week 10 or do you draft a guy who can go from week one, even with a short preparation time?

To understand just how NFL-ready rookie offensive linemen are, I looked at the rookies from the last two years and how they performed according to ProFootballFocus.com. In the table below the 2009 draft class is on the left, the 2010 draft class is on the right.

Year Rnd Pick Player Pos Team Games Started PFF Grade
Year Rnd Pick Player Pos Team Games Started PFF Grade
            2009 2010 2009 2010             2010 2010
2009 1 2 Jason Smith* T STL 5 15 0.2 -16.7 2010 1 4 Trent Williams T WAS 13 -22.6
2009 1 6 Andre Smith* T CIN 1 4 - -
-18.0 2010 1 6 Russell Okung T SEA 10 -2.6
2009 1 8 Eugene Monroe T JAX 13 15 -4.5 -15.1 2010 1 11 Anthony Davis T SFO 16 -26.6
2009 1 21 Alex Mack C CLE 16 16 19.6 8.1 2010 1 17 Mike Iupati G SFO 16 9.6
2009 1 23 Michael Oher T BAL 16 16 9.8 -10.8 2010 1 18 Maurkice Pouncey C PIT 16 -4.2
2009 1 28 Eric Wood C/G BUF 10 14 -4.8 -7.5 2010 1 23 Bryan Bulaga T GNB 12 -24.6
2009 2 39 Eben Britton T JAX 15 7 -5.9 -2.2 2010 2 33 Rodger Saffold T STL 16 -12.4
2009 2 49 Max Unger C/G SEA 16 1 0.3  - -
2010 2 45 Zane Beadles G DEN 14 6.3
2009 2 51 Andy Levitre G BUF 16 16 -10.6 -3.5 2010 2 61 Vladimir Ducasse T NYJ 0  - -
2009 2 54 Phil Loadholt T MIN 15 16 -1.2 -22.7 2010 2 64 Charles Brown T NOR 0  - -
2009 2 58 Sebastian Vollmer T NWE 8 16 21.4 2.3

The good news is that when you draft a lineman in the first two rounds, you are usually drafting an immediate starter. If you look at the linemen on this list, most were immediate starters in year one, the players marked with a (*) suffered either serious or season ending injuries in their first year. Charles Brown and Vladimir Ducasse were both widely viewed as 'project' players heading into the draft, it's no surprise they didn't start last year. So barring injury, almost every lineman drafted in the first two rounds became a starter in his rookie season.

The bad news is that rookie offensive linemen are going to struggle mightily as they adapt to the NFL game, even in seasons that are not disrupted by labor strife. Dwight Freeney, a 6-time Pro Bowler & 3-time First-Team All-Pro pass rusher for the Colts explains why:

"I'm licking my chops. When you have a rookie offensive tackle, I can't wait. Because for an offensive tackle, you're not good until you're in like your eighth year. You've got to get beat up for a while to learn what to do and what not to. It's when you're about in your fifth through 10th years as an offensive tackle that you're in your prime."

"All these rookies coming out?  They don’t know anything," Freeney said.  "I can’t wait."

Out of the 16 rookie linemen in the table above who started ten games or more in their rookie season, only five had a positive grade from PFF. Granted, every single one of those rookies graded out better in their rookie season than Marc Colombo did last year, but most would not have been a short term upgrade over either Leonard Davis or Kyle Kosier, if you look at the Cowboys O-line grades in the table below.

Doug Free Kyle Kosier Andre Gurode Leonard Davis Marc Colombo
NFL Rank 3/39 13/41 6/34 8/40 36/37
PFF Grade 17.9 2.2 13.2 6.7 -34.1

Offensive linemen are not plug-and-play solutions to your O-line troubles. How much of an upgrade they turn out to be depends largely on how bad the player was that they are replacing. The challenge at right tackle may not be quite as big with the Cowboys as it may be with some other teams, but bringing in a veteran may provide a bigger short term improvement (at the expense of perhaps long term improvement).

But who are the tackles available in free agency? Again we turn to PFF to see what the Cowboys' options are. Below is a list of right tackle free agents and their PFF grades in 2010 and 2009. Slim pickings.

NFL rank Player Age Team Snaps 2010 Overall Grade Pass Bock Screen Block Run Block Penalty '09 Grade
2 Marshal Yanda 26 BLT 1021 17.4 4.2 0.5 10.6 2.1 -3.3
4 Tyson Clabo 29 ATL 1153 10.8 5 0 -0.4 6.2 6.6
- - Ryan O'Callaghan 27 KC 159 4.9 2.2 -0.5 2.2 1 -15.1
8 Sean Locklear 29 SEA 997 2 11 0 -8.1 -0.9 -1.2
11 Ryan Harris 25 DEN 668 -0.9 0.6 3 -4 -0.5 -1.2
18 Langston Walker 31 OAK 995 -3.6 -14.7 0 12 -0.9 -1.8
- - Corey Hilliard 25 DET 271 -4.4 -2.5 1 0 -2.9 - -
24 Jeromey Clary 27 SD 1104 -12.6 -8.9 0.5 -5.4 1.2 5.6
26 Stephon Heyer 27 WAS 384 -13.4 -8.3 0.5 -1 -4.6 -19.0
27 Wayne Hunter 29 NYJ 361 -13.4 -8.9 0 -0.7 -3.8 -4.4

This table excludes the left tackle free agents, as I don't think it's realistic to expect the Cowboys to pay left tackle money for a right tackle. Not a very inspiring list of candidates by any measure. I can only hope the Cowboys have their eyes set on a free agent diamond - who's preferably not on this list.

Of course, there's also the little issue of signing potential free agent Doug Free to a long term contract. Perhaps that's who the Cowboys mean when they're "thinking about a veteran free agent tackle"?

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