There are still five weeks to go until the start of the NFL season, and a month until the final roster cut down, but some trends are starting to emerge for the Dallas Cowboys.
The great white whale of roster obsessions for Dallas continues to be the offensive line. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a pre-camp prediction post about how the O line would shape up. It seems like a good time to review that based on the performances in Oxnard so far.
Just as a refresher, I figured that four of the starters on the line would be Tyron Smith at LT, Doug Free at RT, Ronald Leary at one G position, and Travis Frederick either playing C or G. The fifth starting slot I figured would go to Nate Livings, Phil Costa, or Mackenzy Bernadeau, and which one of those was starting would determine who went where in the interior line. The one of the other two would be a backup (with either Livings or Bernadeau likely being cut), and I had Jermey Parnell, Kevin Kowalski and David Arkin to round out the offensive line, for a total of nine.
The tackle situation has firmed up in camp. Smith has continued to go toe-to-toe with DeMarcus Ware in practice, and has looked so good that Mike Fisher has officially declared that KD's "Tyronasaurus" label should become his official nickname. Most of us expected something like that. What has been a pleasant surprise has been the solid job Free has done. He is playing much better and seems to have overcome the technique issues that were plaguing him last year. Not so pleasant has been a decline in the performance of Parnell, who many were hoping would challenge for the starting RT job. Parnell is not only no longer much of a threat to the reinvigorated Free, he now has to look over his shoulder at whether Edawn Coughman or Darrion Weems might threaten his job. Weems is not having the camp many thought he might, but Coughman is still a bit of a factor. However, the safest bet here is that Parnell will keep his backup job. Coughman may make it as a fourth tackle, or get to the practice squad.
There is still some talk about Frederick being moved to guard. Don't listen to it. Fredbeard is going to start at center. He is going to call the line plays. He is going to embarrass and hurt someone. And he is going to enjoy it.
That takes care of 60% of the line, which is 40% more than I was certain of when I did the last article about this. It still leaves the guards.
I think injury is going to dictate this. Livings and Leary both missed time due to injury. Both are back on the field and rotating at LG, but they are not having the same success. Livings has been described as stiff and having a hard time getting down into his stance, while Leary has largely looked up to the challenge. Leary is taking the lead here, based on everything I have seen. Kowalski was also looking good, but he is now out for two to four weeks with a bruised knee, and will have to contend for a backup slot.
What has been very significant, at least in my opinion, is that through all the issues with injuries, and with Bernadeau yet to see the field as he tries to recover, Arkin has been left to handle RG, and so far, he seems to be handling it well.
If you had to go with your best combination right now, based on the information I have been able to get, the starting line is Smith/Leary/Frederick/Arkin/Free. Having Arkin there causes a certain amount of trepidation among some, and when I mentioned that he was in the mix on Twitter, one media type was downright scornful, citing the way Arkin looked in 2011 and 2012. That is what bothers most of the people commenting on this. There is just no faith in him because he has come along so slowly.
The problem with that is how it ignores the performance on the field now. There are still some concerns. As Bryan Broaddus puts it, Arkin and Free do well when they use good technique, but they have to have almost perfect technique all the time. Any lapse and they will get exploited. But when they get it right, they are quite able to handle things.
And I am not sure that the Cowboys have any better options here. Livings and Bernadeau seem to be succumbing to their respective injuries. Livings appears to be losing ground to Leary, and Bernie has to get on the field before he can do anything. My theory is that you need to develop what you have rather than pin your hopes on what might be there later. It's not rocket surgery.
There is a rumor that the Cowboys may try to bring in another guard.
This says that the team is worried about the situation. KD, in his latest podcast, expressed the opinion that Waters would be a possible replacement for Arkin, but I think this is more to address the current lack of depth. Waters might be able to come in and take the RG job, but he could just be a high-quality insurance policy. I am not as convinced as KD that the team would not release Livings, and they could cut both the free agents signed last year if the performance on the field does not get better. There is no reason to keep someone, despite the cap hit, if they can't make it out there to play.
Waters is just a rumor, right now. I think the lineup above is what the Cowboys would roll with right now, with Parnell and Costa backing up. The other two backup positions (and I still think the team goes with nine total) would come from Kowalski, Cook, Coughman, Livings and Bernadeau. Kowalski, Livings and Bernadeau all have to get healthy. And if they don't, I think they will be gone. I don't think the team will be willing to wait for someone to get better, especially in this group. They are going to need players who can be ready for the beginning of the season. As for who does make it, that is largely going to depend on who can get healthy.