Can The Cowboys Live With Nate Livings As The Left Guard?

Is Nate Livings the answer to the woes at the left guard position?

One of the biggest issues that the Cowboys faced entering the offseason was the interior offensive line. The Cowboys entered training camp last summer with a question mark at the left guard position. Kyle Kosier moved over to the right guard position in order to offer rookie Tyron Smith some aid and veteran presence on the right side of the line. The move made the left guard position unsettled and the Cowboys didn't pursue it as actively as they could have.

A player they could have pursued last summer was former Kansas City Chief Brian Waters. Waters would have been a great signing in my opinion because he was experienced and still had something left in the tank. It also would have been a homecoming for Waters, who was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Cowboys back in 1999. Waters played at North Texas and had a very successful high school career in the state of Texas.

The Cowboys never signed Waters, instead opting for former Washington Redskin Derrick Dockery. While it wasn't a bad signing, passing on Waters for Dockery was a big mistake. The Cowboys chose to not bring back Montrae Holland after he played some solid football for them last year. There is a new face at the left guard position, but will it bring us success?

The Revolving Door At Left Guard

Last year the Cowboys had a revolving door at left guard and the position wasn't stabilized until they re-signed Montrae Holland and inserted him into the starting lineup. Bill Nagy was an experiment before he broke his ankle against the New England Patriots, but he lacked the strength to overpower defensive lineman. Derrick Dockery started two games, but injuries kept him off the field and he clearly wasn't going to be the answer.

Below is the snap count for the entire offensive line in 2011.

POS

Name

Snaps

LT

Doug Free

1080

RT

Tyron Smith

1074

RG

Kyle Kosier

1051

OC

Phil Costa

1024

LG

Montrae Holland

641

LG

Bill Nagy

283

LG

Derrick Dockery

133

C/G

Kevin Kowalski

114

RT

Jermey Parnell

10

Nagy and Dockery didn't receive very high marks from Pro Football Focus. Nagy finished with a -9.0 overall and Dockery finished with a -3.8 overall. Holland received a positive grade from PFF, finishing the season with a +5.9. If not for his age and injury concerns, he probably would have received at least a training camp invite.

The left guard position will be handed to Nate Livings after signing him to a five-year, $19 million dollar contract. Livings just turned 30 years old this year and started 47 games for the Cincinnati Bengals. The former LSU product was an undrafted free agent who should bring a more physical type of game to the offensive line. At 6'5, 332 pounds, Livings has the size to become the run blocking left guard that we lacked for most of 2011.

Jason Garrett didn't have a lot of exciting things to say about Livings, but he is convinced that he will be a solid player for the Cowboys.

"Nate’s a guy that always doesn’t wow you physically. He’s not one of those guys that jumps off the tape at you. But he’s done a really good job blocking his guy throughout his career, and that’s what attracted us to him. He seems to be getting more and more comfortable with what we’re trying to do here"

Livings doesn't have to be an All-Pro for him to be considered a successful signing, if he can be consistent and stay healthy, then Livings could be a major upgrade at the left guard position. Pro Football Focus had some positive and negative things to say about Livings.

Livings hasn’t received a positive grade from PFF for a complete season in any of the past four years we’ve been grading. It is true that he has had strong–even dominant–games in each of them, though. It isn’t so much that Livings is an outright poor player, but rather that he is extremely inconsistent. Thus, Livings has always ended up more bad than good over the long term. What clouds things even more is that he is not just capable of the odd good day against a bad opponent. Livings has actually performed extremely well against the best the NFL has to offer. He held his own this season against Justin Smitharguably the best defensive player in football–and turned in strong showings against Baltimore twice, Buffalo and Arizona’s Calais Campbell. In those five games combined, he allowed just four total pressures in pass protection, and earned a run blocking grade of +3.7, though he was also charged with a pair of penalties.

Honestly, had you been wanting to pick some games from his season to see how he fared against strong opposition, those are the games you would pick and you would likely come away thinking that Livings was a good player. He proved he was capable of neutralizing some of the best defenders in the NFL while protecting his quarterback ably and run blocking efficiently. These games give you an indication of why the Cowboys like Livings. Coaches always look at upside and talent, content in their own ability to coach out the negatives and iron the wrinkles out of a player’s game. This, perhaps more than anything, is what gets teams into trouble with personnel decisions. They bring in players they know are flawed, believing they can fix them and that they’ll end up with a better player than the tape has shown for years. Sometimes it’s possible, most of the time it’s not.

Holding his own against some of the better five-technique defensive ends in the NFL is a very good sign, but at the same time it's clear that he has been inconsistent during his career. Sam Monson, the author of that article, goes into more detail about that inconsistency.

He has the ability to dominate on any given play, and even across entire games if things fall right for him. Yet, he has never been able to put together a string of impressive performances without poor games in between. Simply put, sooner or later the bad games come out. Dallas might think they can coach out the negatives from his game, get him into a good position early on a more consistent basis, and erase the negatives that poor positioning leads to, and if they can, they may well produce a truly impressive player.

Former scout Bryan Broaddus also took a closer look at Livings and his game tape from 2011.

There is nothing smooth or pretty about his game, but you do see him fight to finish blocks. He is a stalemate blocker in the running game. He fights to make the cut-off blocks and will work to get to the second level. If he did have some struggles in the running game, it was when he was asked to pull. He wasn't the quickest when he did it, but he also had a couple plays where he was a "one shot" blocker. I thought he needed to do a better job, once he located the target, to hit and try to secure his man.

As a pass protector, I thought he could have played with more punch. He did more grabbing than punching, but to his credit when he did grab his man he was OK. He was able to adjust to the twist stunt, but had some trouble with the inside power move. He needs to be more forceful when power stepping inside to protect that gap. He has to watch if he gets over-extended, and plays over the tops of his feet. That's when he has some balance issues. Livings was aware enough to help a teammate when uncovered. He will work to the inside to help on the nose or slide outside to work on the end. He showed some recovery in the Ravens game when beaten on the swim move. I was surprised how well he was able to pass protect on both Justin Smith and Campbell, who I feel are two of the better pressure players in the league. He dad a little trouble with the quickness of Justin Smith, and that will be something to keep an eye on.

Broaddus was very surprised by how well Livings did against Justin Smith and Calais Campbell, and they are among the best five-technique defensive ends in the game. Tony Romo needs better pass protection from the interior, and Livings may be able to offer him that. The Cowboys have had trouble against the 3-4 defense, so it is encouraging that Livings did well against them. We need to see more consistency from Livings as a blocker, but offensive line coach Bill Callahan must have saw something in Livings that he liked. Hopefully his coaching can erase some of the negatives that PFF and Broaddus saw on tape.

As for his run blocking, I envision a Leonard Davis type of blocker. Due to his size, I just don't see Livings becoming a very good blocker in the second level. Not many guys his size possess the athleticism to be great on the move. I expect to see Livings used more as a power blocker who can use his size to his advantage. The right guard and center will probably be doing more of the second level blocking for us.

This was a signing that didn't have the fans excited, nor should it. Livings doesn't have the talent to become the best guard in football, but he does have the talent and size to be a solid football player for the Cowboys. Kyle Kosier was about as close as it gets to a consistent guard when he was healthy during his prime at left guard. Livings could be a Kosier type of player who gets the job done for us.

I see the addition of Livings as a positive because I believe he can become the powerful lineman we can run behind down in the red zone. We only scored five rushing touchdowns last year, and that number has to rise if this team wants to contend for a Super Bowl. Jason Garrett loves to pass the football, but he understands the importance of a good running game.

"We feel like you have to be a passing team in this day and age, but you also have to be a running team. You have to be a physical team. The bottom line is we want to get the ball in the end zone as much as we can. Certainly, if we can do it a variety of ways that’s going help you and help attack defenses in a lot of different ways."

Kyle Kosier was a great player for us and I salute him for his service as a Dallas Cowboy. Hopefully Nate Livings can come in and solidify the left guard position because it became a problem after we moved Kosier to the right side. Livings should be an upgrade over what we had last year, but will he become the player the front office envisioned when they signed him during the offseason? If he doesn't pan out this year, the Cowboys could be back to the drawing board in 2012.

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