After yet another season with way too much turmoil surrounding the offensive line, the Dallas Cowboys are trying very, very hard to get that figured out. They invested another first-round pick in the line, this time to grab Travis Frederick, who is likely to become the staring center this year. However, there has to be more than a little disappointment that, once again, the two free agent guards that were hired in 2012 were, by the end of the minicamp, both on the sidelines with injury problems. Last year, after waiting for the new addditions to get healthy, the line was not ready for prime time to start the season. Can Dallas afford to play it that way again? Or do they have enough information now to make at least on other decision besides Frederick, to give the line all the time they can to gel?
It may be time to make that decision. This is not only about who the best guards are, but about giving Frederick the best chance you can. While there is still a theoretical competition going on with Phil Costa on the roster, I think the fact that the first-round pick took just about every snap with the "ones" in the past four weeks is the real tip-off here. You expect a starter from your first-round pick, and the team is doing all it can to make that happen. Costa will likely be with the team as a backup, but Frederick will line up to start the season.
He is still a rookie, however. You want to make sure he has the right players around him. And after seeing how detrimental the numerous shuffles in the middle of the line were last season, the team has to be looking for a better way forward. The best solution is to have the five offensive linemen you want to open the season on the field for the first day of training camp, and then try to keep that lineup intact. Let them become a unit, not the ad hoc groupings that Dallas was forced to go with almost from day one of camp last year.
The Cowboys really can't afford the kind of confused and flawed play they saw in the middle of the offensive line last season. Jason Garrett, as you may have heard, is a big believer in "process". But right now, the Cowboys need to figure out which part of the process is the most important. Is the experience of Nate Livings worth enough to wait for him to get healthy, or should the team put more weight on time Ronald Leary spent working with Smith and Frederick?
I don't think there is enough data to say that David Arkin has a clear advantage over Mackenzy Bernadeau at right guard. But I do think that, based on the way things went in T-shirts and helmets, Leary may be a better option right now than Livings. He looked good, seemed to hold his own against the first string rushmen, and more importantly, there were some signs of a chemistry developing between him and Smith, as well as with Fredbeard. I think Leary needs to be given the first team reps in training camp, no matter what shape Livings is in. If Livings is going to keep his position, he should have to do it as a backup, and right now, I don't know if he brings more to the table than Kevin Kowalski or Ryan Cook, both of whom can also play center, something Livings does not offer. He would wind up costing the team $2,100,000 in cap space if he is cut - but then he frees up $4.3 million in 2014 if he is gone. (Figures based on both Spotrac.com and Overthecap.com.) With Livings' age, injury history, and contract structure, he simply doesn't look like what the team needs right now. Leary, on that UDFA rookie contract, does.
Would making the call on one side but leaving it open on the other be trying to have it both ways? No, I think it is just a reflection of where the team is. In the long run, I even think that getting one side of the line settled to start the preseason is worth more than making sure you get the absolute perfect guy at left guard. If it takes four weeks to sort out who that guy is, then you are right back with trying to get the timing and teamwork down. Making that call now will even allow the staff to focus more on the right guard and make a faster decision there. If I were betting, I would say that Bernadeau is going to claim the job fairly quickly if he is ready to go. If not, then Arkin has a chance to prove the team did not make a mistake drafting him.
This does seem to threaten the "process" a little, in light of Garrett's statements about putting the best five linemen out there no matter what. But I think the five best is more a matter of the best combination, and getting those players in place early so they can become better as a unit may make up for putting a guy who is a little more talented or experienced in reserve - or out the door. I think this needs to be a matter of major discussion between Garrett, Bill Callahan, and Frank Pollack. They need to get that starting five lined up fast. I think they have the data to do so, at least regarding four of them. I think this is Leary's year. And that will make Livings expendable.