On August 20th, Dan Graziano, author of the NFC East blog at ESPN.com made some observations regarding the relative weakness of each offensive line in the NFC East. As Cowboys fans have been wringing their hands over the lack of high draft choices spent on the offensive line outside of Tyron Smith (9th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft), the brief synopsis provided by Graziano combined with some preseason review may have demonstrated the relative strength of the Cowboys offensive line when measured against their division rivals.
In order to familiarize Cowboys fans with the other NFC East proposed starters, below is a list of expected offensive lien starters as predicted by ESPN.com. The comments regarding some of the players and regarding the teams comes from Graziano's column.
NY Giants proposed offensive line starters
LT - W Beatty: is unproven and can't get healthy
OG - K Boothe: has not started an entire season
OC - D Bass: was a disappointment in his first season in New York
OG - C Snee
RT - D Diehl
"The Giants finished 32nd in the league last season in rushing offense because of a line that couldn't get any push. Pro Football Focus graded them the 29th-best run-blocking team in the league, and the worst pass-blocking team in the league." http://espn.go.com/blog/dallas/cowboys/post/_/id/4696003/nfc-east-teams-must-look-to-the-lines
Philadelphia Eagles proposed offensive line starters
LT - D Bell
OG - E Mathis
OC - J Kelce
OG - D Watkins
RT - T Herremans
"After a rocky start, the Eagles had a good season on the line in 2011. They ranked second in the league in run-blocking and 14th in pass-blocking. But they also lost left tackle Jason Peters, their best lineman and one of the best in the league, to an Achilles injury in the offseason. As good as the other four starters on their line are, the Eagles could struggle to replace what Peters gave them last season..." http://espn.go.com/blog/dallas/cowboys/post/_/id/4696003/nfc-east-teams-must-look-to-the-lines
Washington Redskins proposed offensive line starters
LT - T Williams
OG - K Lichtensteiger: dealing with a knee injury
OC - W Montgomery: limitations as a center in their zone-blocking run scheme
OG - C Chester
RT - T Polumbus
"The Redskins likely were planning to use some of the $18 million in salary cap money the league took from them on the eve of free agency to upgrade the offensive line. But they couldn't, obviously, so they're still dealing with Jammal Brown's hip injury. The Redskins ranked 26th in pass blocking and 30th in run blocking last season according to those PFF grades, and they also made no significant change or improvement." http://espn.go.com/blog/dallas/cowboys/post/_/id/4696003/nfc-east-teams-must-look-to-the-lines
Dallas Cowboys proposed offensive line starters
LT - T Smith: had to switch sides
OG - N Livings
OC - P Costa: has been banged up
OG - M Bernadeau
RT - D Free: had to switch sides
"The Cowboys' offensive line has been the dominant story of their training camp -- specifically their struggles at center, where...the potential backups and replacements for him have had trouble snapping the ball to the quarterback. The Cowboys also are trying to find guards who can protect Tony Romo against the interior pass rush better than they did last season. PFF had Dallas as the 15th-best pass-blocking team in 2011 and the 11th-best run blocking one, so it could be worse. But they need everyone healthy and playing together to see if they have a chance." http://espn.go.com/blog/dallas/cowboys/post/_/id/4696003/nfc-east-teams-must-look-to-the-lines
The Giants and Redskins had the 29th and 30th ranked run blocking offensive lines, respectively. Neither New York nor Washington has made any significant changes to possibly upgrade their offensive lines.
The Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles are the only teams in the NFC East that ranked in the top 15 according to PFF in both run and pass blocking in 2011. Philadelphia spent a first round selection to acquire left tackle Jason Peters in a trade with Buffalo and another first round pick on Danny Watkins, a projected starting guard. Now the Eagles best offensive lineman, Peters is out for the season.
With Peters, the Eagles were the 14th best pass protecting line. Without Jason, it is reasonable to expect a drop in pass protection, leading to more scrambling by Michael Vick. But Vick is most dangerous when he is scrambling...or is he?
In 2010 and 2011, Vick ran 176 times for 1265 yards. That is an average of 7.19 yards per rush. When Michael throws the ball, he averages 7.95 yards per attempt. It could be argued that the Eagles would be better served to have Michael Vick throw more often and refrain from running, especially considering how often Vick gets injured and misses games.
In 2011, LeSean McCoy rushed for 17 touchdowns, compared to the 7 touchdowns he ran for in 2010. It seems that Andy Reid sacrificed Vick's prowess in the red zone in 2011 by handing the ball off to McCoy. In 2010, the Eagles won the NFC East with Vick rushing for 9 touchdowns, while in 2011, Michael ran for but 1 touchdown.
So how has the Dallas offensive line changed? According to Rafael Vela over at cowboysnation.com (http://www.cowboysnation.com/2012/08/a-second-look-at-cowboys-tape-tracking.html), judging by his preseason performance thus far, Bernadeau looks like a significant upgrade over the 2011 edition of Kyle Kosier.
Tyron Smith moved to a new position, left tackle. Doug Free returns to the right tackle position in which he excelled for most of 2009. Phil Costa will return as the starting center. Nate Livings is the biggest unknown, probably making his preseason debut against the Rams.
It would be reasonable to expect Livings to be an upgrade over the combination of Nagy, Dockery, and Holland. Considering that Dockery is still projected as a back-up to Livings, and Holland is still on the street as a free agent, a strong possibility exists that Nate will perform better than the three players manning the position in 2011.
The coaching staff noted that Costa would benefit from being surrounded by better guards on either side, and Phil demonstrated improved play over the second half of 2011. The center position may show significant improvement in 2012. Perhaps the perceived weakness the Cowboys have on the interior of the line is being overstated.
Doug Free is slowly starting to work effectively in conjunction with Bernadeau. Tyron Smith is unquestionably the most physically gifted offensive lineman in Dallas. Despite never playing the uber-important left tackle position, few questions arise regarding his performance to date.
Maybe, just maybe the best offensive line in the NFC East belongs to the Cowboys. Is that enough for Dallas to win the NFC East title this season?
Coupled with an improved secondary, could the Cowboys be poised to make a run in the playoffs?
I would like to see it begin with a win at the New Meadowlands on September 5th.