It is the time of year when the thoughts of all NFL fans (whose teams are not still alive in the playoffs) turn to who they want to see taken in the draft or what free agents they hope will be enticed to come to their team. For Dallas Cowboys followers the last few years, this has included a good deal of obsession about getting some help for a woefully under-performing offensive line. We develop pet cats (I say that in a generic sense, the concept of "pet cat" no longer having any applicability to me in any shape, form, or fashion), concoct strange blackmail schemes involving Jerry Jones and copious amounts of alcohol, and mostly just hope and pray that the team invests heavily in this foundation for all aspects of the offensive game.
And then cruel reality intrudes. The Cowboys currently have six draft picks. Six. (The seventh round pick was traded to the Miami Dolphins.) And that is with needs along the D line, safety, RB, and it wouldn't hurt to consider a developmental QB plus some wide receiver depth. The team is only going to be able to do so much with the draft. Cap concerns make free agency an unlikely alternative.
That means that the foundation for the offensive line of 2013 is going to be constructed using the roster of 2012. It cannot be avoided. Hiding under your bed with your blankie is not going to change that rather ugly fact.
By the end of the season, the Cowboys had 11 offensive line players on the roster. Under the most optimistic scenarios regarding new player acquisition, you have to figure that at least seven will be part of the team to start next season. It is entirely possible that the entire starting offensive line will be composed of players we all know and love already.
So who will stay and who will go? Here are my thoughts.
C Phil Costa - The starter going into 2012, he wound up playing a bare handful of snaps in three games, with his appearances more like a cameo than a starring role. Besides the health issues that have plagued him two out of the three years with the team, he just does not seem to have the strength or mass needed to play center. That is more a matter of an eye test than measurables. He is a restricted free agent. If anyone else emerges in the offseason, I think you can take the restricted off that and wave good-bye. But if not, then we have to hope he stays healthy.
C/G Ryan Cook - Came in and played most of the season in relief of Costa. Was not great, but was also not the biggest problem on the line. Given that he had never played the position prior to being called into action in the first game of the season, he handled himself well. May be a valuable backup, but I don't think the team really wants to go with him as the starter, despite being a better size than Costa.
C/G Kevin Kowalski - Sat out six weeks of the season as Physically Unable to Perform. Prior to that, he inspired a lot of hope that he was going to be in the mix on the line, but never saw any action after he was available. A bit of an unknown still. He could come on strong or he could fade away and be gone before the season begins.
G David Arkin - Sort of the enigma of the roster. As in, "Does anybody understand why he is still on the roster?" A little bit light, he has not developed well at all. According to Birddog26, he spent most of one offseason working to learn the center position as a fallback plan, and this impeded his development as a guard. But barring a lot of progress this offseason, it would seem this experiment is just about done.
G Mackenzy Bernadeau - One of the two free agents brought in to help fix the offensive line in 2012, he was pretty much a disappointment. Right?
Well, maybe not. In an article by Bryan Broaddus at DallasCowboys.com, he continues with a position he has taken all year, that Bernadeau actually was not that bad, and could be the solution at center. Bernadeau did fill in for Ryan Cook one game, and he seemed to handle it well. The fact is that none of the other options at center is overwhelming, and this may be the best position for Bernadeau. This would likely drive the Cowboys to look more for a guard as their highest offensive priority in the draft.
G David Dockery - He is an unrestricted free agent. When he had to come in and play the game that Bernadeau was at center, there was a collective groan. To cut to the chase, I will now list all the reasons the Cowboys should re-sign him:
G Ronald Leary - There were some good things going around about his work on the practice squad. The player with the supposedly bad knee impressed the team enough that he was promoted to the 53 man roster late in the year to protect him from being poached by another team, despite the fact defensive players were dropping like girls at a Justin Bieber concert. Look for him to be in the mix.
G Nate Livings - The other free agent guard brought in to shore up things inside. He was at least better than Bernadeau.
Stop me if you've heard this before, but not so fast. Broaddus (whose work I really like, just to make full disclosure) has a pretty good film study up of how Livings is, well, not all that good. I think the team is really hoping that one of the other guard candidates will step up and take his starting job away from him.
T Doug Free - He is gaining a reputation as the most hated man on the team. With six years experience and a big, cap heavy contract, he still struggles with technique. But given the issues up the middle for the team and the cap implications, the Cowboys may be forced to find some way to work with him.
T Jermey Parnell - If the Cowboys do find a way to free themselves from starting Free, then Parnell is likely to be a key to the situation. He is still learning to play his position and acquitted himself much better than most would have guessed when pressed into service. The guy just seems to be a bit of a physical freak who should only get better after another offseason.
T Tyron Smith - There was a lot of hope that flipping Smith and Free at tackle would help solve the issues on the line. Well, it didn't really, but Smith remains the best O lineman the Cowboys have. The former first-rounder will hopefully grow and play closer to his impressive rookie season.
T Darrion Weems - Signed pretty much as a disaster option late in the season. Practice squad player, nothing to judge him on.
Since the end of the year, the team has also added G Ray Dominguez and T Aderious Simmons. At best, they are very long shots for providing any help, but I do try to be thorough and accurate.
It is a little depressing. Outside of Smith, there is no one that really makes me excited to see coming back. Here (given the limited amount of info I have, we are talking a serious guess, and I am also leaning heavily on Broaddus' opinion) is what I think will be the foundation of the line:
C/G - Bernadeau, Cook
G - Livings, Leary, either Kowalski or Arkin
T - Smith, Free, Parnell
That is eight players. I am basing that on the team finding one more interior lineman in the draft. If the team gets really lucky in the draft, they could lose another of those players. But like these names or not, we are going to see a lot of them back next year.