In the last FanPost on this topic, we looked at the starting offensive line of the New York Giants on their 2011-2012 Super Bowl championship team, and compared how that unit was constructed to our own ongoing offensive line rebuild. I'm anticipating despite the progress of David Arkin at center this preseason that the Boys might bring in a veteran backup like Colin Baxter who played under coach Bill Callahan with the New York Jets for the 9th OL spot this weekend.
In this version, we look at three other teams that were in the AFC playoffs last year and have been perennial contenders with draft picks in the late 1st round for several seasons -- the AFC Champion New England Patriots, the Baltimore Ravens who were a shanked Billy Cundiff kick away from the title tilt, and the Pittsburgh Steelers, who selected BTB favorite guard David DeCastro in Round One of the 2012 NFL Draft prior to DeCastro tearing up his ACL/MCL this preseason. In other words we're looking at the strongest possible case for Dallas finally using at least one top 100 pick on an offensive lineman, year in and year out, as the critics have said Jerry Jones has failed to do since Jason Garrett became head coach -- and an approach that Wade Phillips/Bill Parcells really never tried to do during their time here.
Before diving into direct comparisons I though I would direct readers to ScarletO's essay, "Could the Cowboys Have the Best Offensive Line in the NFC East this Year?". While the consensus from a reader poll in my last edition was that the Philadelphia Eagles remain well ahead of the rest in our division, the injury to All-Pro left tackle Jason Peters could have narrowed that gap this offseason.
Since the last edition the New York Giants have likely parted with 33-year-old starting Super Bowl right tackle Kareem McKenzie in favor of youngsters Sean Locklear or James Brewer at that position -- though Will Beatty's aching back had Locklear starting in preseason game 3 against the Bears at left tackle, and he could also start at LT against the Cowboys on September 5th.
Without further ado, let's look at the starting o-lines for the AFC Champions and their playoff rivals from the AFC North who are widely considered among the best drafting teams in football:
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS Super Bowl XLVI starting offensive line (bold indicates players originally signed by team)
LT - Matt Light 2nd round, NE 2001 A guy who may not have been considered elite at his position but was a ten year starter after being drafted 48th overal out of Purdue before the Patriots' became the team of the 2000s. Retired this offseason and is being succeeded by Nate Solder moving over to the left side from playing right tackle his rookie year, much like our own Tyron Smith.
LG Logan Mankins 1st round, NE 2005 - Mankins has been a starter since his rookie year. The 32nd overall pick in 05' has been one of the players setting the standard at his position for years.
C Dan Conolly UDFA, JAX 2005 - Dan Conolly came into the league as an undrafted free agent for the Jacksonville Jaguars after playing as an offensive tackle at small school Southeast Missouri State (not unlike our very own David Arkin, who played for Missouri State and is making a similar transition inside to either guard or center). Conolly was signed by the Patriots in 2007 and started in Mankins place at left guard in the first seven games of the 2010 season. You could in fact call the 6"4 Conolly the prototype for what the Cowboys have been attempting to develop in David Arkin and Kevin Kowalski, though Killer K has been stashed on PUP with tendinitis. According to OurLads.com's 2012 depth charts Conolly has now been moved back to right guard to make way for 3rd year UDFA center Ryan Wendell who was groomed on the Pats practice squad for multiple seasons.
RG Brian Waters UDFA, KC 2000 - The Cowboys had a chance to sign the now 35-year-old Waxahachie, Texas native in the last offseason but famously chose to roll with Derrick Dockery and Bill Nagy instead, while later signing Montrae Holland. Nagy reinjured his ankle during training camp and was snatched off waivers by the Detroit Lions before the Cowboys could put him on IR. Dockery is probably hitting the street this Saturday and Nagy may never be a starter in this league.
Waters' one-year success at the RG spot is proof that picking up veteran free agents to fill in for injured starters is almost as important as how well a team drafts offensive linemen, though Waters is currently replaced on the Pats depth chart with former Super Bowl center Dan Conolly.
RT Nate Solder (R) 1st Round NE 2011 - The 17th overall pick behind Tyron Smith didn't outshine the Cowboys top choice in that draft. But Solder was a solid starter at right tackle for 13 games of his rookie season, giving up just four sacks. He's shifting to LT while Patriots 2009 2nd round pick (58th overall) and Dusseldorf, Germany (aka OCC country) native Sebastian Vollmer is manning the right side this season.
Conclusion - the Pats spent some high draft picks along their offensive line, but also groomed talent in-house at the interior o-line and right tackle positions (Vollmer) for several seasons, including talent acquired from other teams' cast offs (Conolly) as with the Giants. They were also able to patch a one-year hole with an aged veteran in Waters.
Of all the AFC line building models presented here, I think the Patriots' represents the most feasible model for the Cowboys to follow as Jerry and Stephen Jones are not going to draft offensive linemen in the 1st or 2nd round every season despite 2013 being a very good year to do so. This team still has needs in the secondary at cornerback (Mike Jenkins replacement) or free safety (especially if they don't see much from Matt Johnson this season), and possibly defensive line and tight end with this season's injuries to Jay Ratliff and Jason Witten. For more on the 2013 draft and the BPA strategy opening up thanks to the development of our young OLBs already on the roster, see Of Hamiltons and Franklins Part II.
BALTIMORE RAVENS AFC Championship game starting offensive line
LT Bryant McKinnie - acquired as a free agent after an up and down career in Minnesota, McKinnie is a man mountain but has always struggled with quicker edge rushers since being drafted early in 2002's first round. He could lose his job to massive backups Ramon Harewood (6th round 2010 draft) or 2012 high draft pick (60th overall) Kelechi Osemele later this season.
LG Ben Grubbs - 1st round 29th overall, 2007 Grubbs was one of the top rated guards in the league last year before signing with the New Orleans Saints to replace their departed top tier guard Carl Nicks who signed a big money deal with Tampa. A textbook example for Stephen Jones of what could happen if he drafts a guard in the late 1st round of 2013 -- but also of what happens when a team can't afford to pay both of its starting guards big money. Grubbs is being replaced by journeymen Bobbie Williams or Tony Wragge, unless Osemele moves inside as some projected him to do during this draft.
C Andre Grurode - Grurode's history is well known to Dallas fans of the last decade, he was a solid 2nd round pick in 2002 (Dave Campo's last draft). The Ravens needed a 320 ib + center last season in an AFC North that features some massive defensive linemen, particularly against the Steelers DTs. Dallas attempted to get smaller and quicker at the position after cutting Grurode with generally poor results facing bigger defensive lines and bull rushes in 2011. Grurode is currently succeeded on the Ravens' depth chart by aging veteran Matt Birk with the Cowboys Nation blog indicating Ohio State UDFA Justin Boren could still claim the spot from 2012 4th round pick (98th overall) Gino Gradkowski.
RG Marshal Yanda - 3rd round 86th overall, 2007 - selected in the same draft where the Ravens got Grubbs, Yanda has been a solid if not spectacular starter.
RT Michael Oher - 1st round, 23rd overall thanks to the 2009 movie The Blind Side with Sandra Bullock Oher is probably the most heralded of the Ravens high picks spent in recent years to build a mauling offensive line.
Conclusion -- while the Ravens are exhibit A for what consistently drafting offensive and defensive linemen high can do for a franchise, the difficulty of replacing a Pro Bowl starter in Grubbs offers a small word of caution. This o-line has certainly made the statuesque Joe Flacco look good but if he struggles against the Steelers and Eagles pass rush don't be surprised if fans call for the more mobile and athletic Tyrod Taylor to start at some point in 12'.
PITTSBURGH STEELERS offensive line - I couldn't find the depth chart for the 11' AFC playoffs so I'm using their current one from NFL Scouting Service website OurLads.com, which does not include the IR'd DeCastro:
LT Max Starks - 3rd round, 75th overall, 2004 perhaps one of the largest men in the NFL if not the largest offensive lineman, Starks was a 2nd year starter on the Steelers Super Bowl championship team that beat the Seattle Seahawks. Starks signed a large deal in 2009 but was released in the summer of 2011 before being brought back. Former Ohio State Buckeye Mike Adams is pushing Starks for the job after being selected 56th overall in the second round of the 2012 draft.
LG Willie Colon - 4th round, 131st overall, 2004 Colon was Max Starks biggest rival for the right tackle spot on the 2005 Steelers championship team, but he also tore an Achilles tendon while working out and missed the 2010 season. Nonetheless the fact that Starks and Colon were selected in consecutve rounds is a lesson that sometimes two starters can come from the same crop of mid-round linemen.
C Maurkice Pouncey - 1st round, 18th overall, 2010 - A textbook example of using a high draft pick to solidify the core of a team's interior offensive line, Pouncey was a rookie starter and Pro Bowler whose twin brother Mike was selected at almost the same spot by the Miami Dolphins the following draft. A model the Cowboys could consider if Alabama's Barret Jones is available in the late first round of the 2013 draft.
RG Ramon Foster - UDFA 2009 Foster grabbed his spot while filling in for an injured Chris Kemoeatu in November of 09'. While the Steelers are held up as the gold standard of drafting offensive linemen high year after year the talent around their UDFA linemen also gives them a good chance to succeed. This is important for the Cowboys chances of developing UDFAs like Kevin Kowalski or Ronald Leary.
RT Marcus Gilbert - 2nd round, 63rd overall, 2011 - Another example of using a high draft pick to address a need, in this case at right tackle where the Steelers had started ex-Cowboy Flozell Adams in the Super Bowl against the Green Bay Packers. The early-to-mid 2nd round is an excellent place to find starting offensive linemen for Dallas in the 2013 draft should they choose to upgrade the swing tackle position or grab a future starter at guard.
Conclusion: Even more so than the Ravens, the Steelers have focused on drafting offensive line up front and it has paid dividends for them even with significant turnover at wide receiver and running back. Rooney's bunch are not a team that has had to rely on developing other teams' cast offs, unlike the New York Giants or even the Patriots. However it should be pointed out here that in prioritizing the offensive line and cornerbacks successive drafts the Steelers may have allowed some of their starting 3-4 DEs/OLBs and NTs to get on the wrong side of 30. Every team faces trade offs in the salary cap era.
Again, I think the model that offers Dallas the best ratio of risk to reward for high draft picks is the New England Patriots model of grabbing OTs and even highly talented interior offensive linemen late in the first or second rounds with UDFAs and late picks/waiver claims filling in the back up positions. That is very close to the model Jason Garrett appears to be employing with the wild cards complicating it injuries and the play of Doug Free at right tackle going forward. Just as the secondary HAD to be fixed with the high picks of the 2012 draft I expect Garrett to pick at least one offensive linemen with our first three picks in 2013, for a draft that looks like this:
1st FS - with Matt Johnson stepping up to be our 4th S in place of McRay, ballhawk to pair up with Church
2nd OG/OC who can replace Costa and leave Arkin, Baxter or Kowalski as backup C
3rd RB unless Felix Jones is extended for one year, in which case this might be an upgrade over Tanner
4th CB Mike Jenkins replacement/or back up slot cornerback
5th RT/big G prospect to compete with Parnell for swing tackle job
6th Defensive Lineman / 4-3 NT type, particularly if Bass and Callaway both get claimed off waivers
7th Blocking TE behind Witten, Phillips and Hanna
In Part III shortly after the season opening tilt in New York I plan to look at our NFC rivals the San Francisco 49ers (who are apparently the gold standard for the 'Boys need to invest more and higher picks in o-line' crowd, besides the AFC North contenders profiled above) and the Green Bay Packers. Hopefully by that time we'll be discussing how the line wasn't totally manhandled in the Meadowlands and looking ahead to their matchups at Seattle.