The future of the Cowboys offensive line is now clear.
Previously, there was no clear indication of how the line would progress -- just look at 2009 and the starters' ages heading into the season. (Give or take a year.)
Flozell Adams - 34
Kyle Kosier - 30
Andre Gurode - 31
Leonard Davis - 31
Marc Colombo - 30
There are two things that stand out.
(1.) They're old and in decline
(2.) 4/5 are extremely close in age.
That basically means the whole line is going to break down at roughly the same time and can't be replaced all at once. Well, you can try, but it's not an ideal situation. We've gotten rid of three starters in two years; quite a dramatic change. There has to be a clear plan to keep your offensive line performing. Just look at last year-- replacing Flozell Adams with Doug Free didn't dramatically improve the performance of the line overall, and it shouldn't. He's only 1/5th of the equation.
Even a commitment to improving the line under these circumstances would not go over very well. Replacing one of these old veterans each year (optimistically) would still yield overall bad line play. Replace Flozell, you've still got Colombo. Replace Colombo, you've still got Davis. The line was blown up this year by releasing two veterans instead of merely one. This was a necessary move to get the line going in some kind of a tangible direction. It was time to buy some breathing room. If you've got a plan and stick to it, you can replace aging veterans at the right time and end up with overall good performance during transitions.
The Cowboys are now set at both tackle positions for the next four years. Doug Free is in the prime of his career and Tyron Smith is a physical beast who will get better year after year. Now, I see the fifth year option for Smith being picked up, making that a transition year for the tackle positions. At first glance, I was a touch disappointed with the contract length they gave Free, but now that I think about it, it's just about perfect. It's hard to predict how long a career a tackle can sustain; could be until they're thirty-two (Colombo) or something like thirty-six (Adams). I had thought a six year contract would have been just about right to, conceivably, use up the rest of Free's career (he'd be thirty-three at the end of it). However, the four year length gives the Cowboys a lot of flexibility.
It would also lend itself to Smith being the future at LT. Now, after 4 years, the Cowboys have the option to extend or leave Free. If Smith really is the heir to the LT position, I could see the team parting ways with Free at this time. The shortness of his contract gives the team some insurance, the insurance being for one, Free's production could inexplicably slip in the last year of his contract. There is also the possibility something could go wrong and Smith isn't ready, or will never be ready, to man the left side. It's a take it or leave it situation. The four years uses up the prime of Free's career and does not reach for his declining years. The most realistic scenario for Smith is that he takes over the left spot in his fifth year (and we give him a seven year extension, hopefully). So, if all goes to plan, the LT position is now locked down for the next eleven years! Insane.
The investment of an offensive tackle at #9 is a tremendous investment (I just pulled a Chia) and shapes the future of the line. It might have been a high price to pay now, but it will allow us to only make a smaller investment later on. We are lucky to have Doug Free, and Tyron Smith was the perfect choice to pair with him. We don't have to worry about drafting a LT for a long time. If Tyron Smith is the future heir to the LT position, once he makes the transition all we'll have to do is find the next RT, which is of course a lot easier to find and takes a much smaller investment. Perfect!
Or it could be that investment was already made. Sam Young has been very good in training camp and could be the eventual starter at RT. Young will require a new contract before the transition year for the tackles. The contract they give him, along with drafting, will give insight into whether or not this will work out. For now, he's done well enough to become the backup swing tackle and could potentially end up the Doug Free of the right side. As with any position, you've got to throw some later picks at the wall and see what sticks (sorry Brewster).
Gurode's situation is pretty clear cut at this point. Depending on what happens at right guard, he could be the next starter to be replaced. He's got two years left on his contract (through 2012) making him the shortest contract on the line (barring Holland starting). There is also the potential he's a cap casualty in 2012 (6.5mil). This is one area where things really need to go to plan. If the Cowboys are forced to give Gurode any kind of extension, they'll be in bad shape. With Phil Costa and Bill Nagy behind him and at least another draft, there will be plenty of options to secure the center position coming up.
Kosier's contract scares me just a little. Based on his age and slight injury-proneness, I think it's a year too long. However, he is serviceable hopefully for that entire contract and it's set up for him to be comfortably replaced. He is now signed through 2013 (ending a year after Gurode's), making him next in line. David Arkin is performing very well in camp and will be a starter at some point.
The big question mark through all this is RG. If the Jets game was tomorrow, Holland would get the start. It's his job to lose. I can't comment on potential FA guard acquisitions that haven't happened yet, but if he does start, that could potentially be a bad situation. He's in the final year of his contract and I expect he will walk (he better walk, the dude is thirty-one and not very good). This looks like where David Arkin will slip right in. I know everyone would like Arkin to start this year over Holland, but if he ain't ready, he ain't ready. If this plays out, the Cowboys will be handing over an extension to him while Smith plays out his fifth year (its nice to spread out the contract money your spending ain't it?). For now Arkin will be the swing guard backup.
With a firm plan in place, the Cowboys would be extending starters or replacing them no more than once a year…all the while enjoying overall good production from the entire unit.
Cowboys fans have been lamenting the play of the OL for several years now. The play of the OL has previously forced JG to game plan around them, close up the playbook, and let predictability creep into our offense, but no more. He's taken the reigns and set in motion a real sense of direction for where this unit is headed. Is he leaning towards linemen who are smart and athletic? Yes, a case could be made, but fundamentally I think JG wants at least two things out of his linemen. One, that they possess knees (not Colombo) and two, that they move faster than a lead refrigerator (not Davis).