If the players work out, it looks like the Dallas Cowboys will have most of the issues they needed to address this offseason under control. They used their first round pick to shore up the interior of the offensive line, Monte Kiffin is confident they have the players already on the roster to make the defensive line into his kind of rush-happy quarterback destroyers, and they drafted a safety in the third.
There is only one glaring issue that was not really addressed in the draft and does not have an apparent solution already in place on the roster: Right tackle. And this may be exactly the wrong time to not have a serious upgrade there.
PFF, which is often cited here for their statistical analysis of performance in the NFL, has done an analysis of the comparative value of the left and right tackle positions. The conventional wisdom in the league has long been that the LT is far more important, protecting the quarterback's blind side. The salaries paid the two positions reflect this, with LTs making, on average, about $4.7 million and RTs only getting about $2.45 million, or just over half. (And that is with Doug Free's bloated deal skewing the numbers up for RTs.) This is based on the way NFL defenses developed back in the 1980s as a response to Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants and the havoc he wreaked on quarterbacks, most infamously breaking Joe Theismann's leg. In a piece that discusses that history a bit, Twitter maven NFL Philosophy talks about how the modern left tackle evolved to counter the Lawrence Taylors of the NFL. And how the NFL is now changing again, sending the pressure from all over the field. Having a good left tackle is no longer enough. To keep the quarterback upright, teams now need a right tackle who is just about as good as the left.
Maybe better. In a quick moving trend, the balance of pass-rushing power has swung the other way, based on PFF's numbers. In 2008, 60% of the top 25 edge rushers in the NFL came from the right DE or OLB position (going against the LT). In 2012, that had dropped to 36%, with 64% of the top sack producers now working against the RT.
NFL Philosophy takes a broader view of things. He points out that the pass rush is now coming from all directions. Left, right, up the gut - the offense has to find ways to stop onrushing players from every direction. And any player on the defense can be involved, with teams blitzing linebackers and defensive backs with abandon.
Dallas has taken steps to take care of the left and middle of their offensive line. Tyron Smith, 2011's first round pick, is the best veteran lineman they have. 2013 first rounder Travis Frederick should be a major factor in solidifying the protection in the center of the line, and at the least he should not be susceptible to being pushed back in Tony Romo's face. The offensive line does not need to have five star players. If it has a couple of strong, smart guys to plug in, that will usually upgrade the overall performance enough to give the team success.
But that issue with RT is still out there, and still one that could create some pretty serious issues. The key now is balance. Teams cannot afford to be soft on one side or another in protection, or have a clear tendency to go to one side or the other. NFL defenses are too fast to adjust and exploit such things. The real innovators right now are looking for much more balanced and therefore unpredictable attacks. You have to change to thrive.
Not only does a balanced approach to your tackles give you better protection, but it works well in that 12 set. Other teams are catching on to the idea that LT and RT are now of very similar value. The Jacksonville Jaguars drafted Luke Joeckel second overall, and they have switched the Outland Trophy winner from LT to RT. That is not something you would have seen even two or three years ago, I think.
This evolution of attack is exactly what we see the Cowboys trying to do. They are moving to a similar set, and have alluded to using a similar offensive plan to what the New England Patriots are using. They may not be cutting edge, but they are trying to make sure they stay as close to it as they can, and at least try to stay ahead of the rest of the NFC East. We know the two TE set is supposed to be prominent this year, and putting Frederick in the middle as either a center or guard would suggest they have intent to send DeMarco Murray and Joseph Randle right up the center of the formation.
But it all could founder on a poorly performing RT. All indications right now are that the Cowboys will try to roll with Doug Free and Jermey Parnell competing for the starting job, if they can get an acceptable (like around $3.5 million) figure to pay Free. This is a risk. Parnell has been talked up by the team, but the converted basketball player is still raw. And no matter what you say about Free's improvement over the course of last season, there is still the fact that he came out and performed horribly early. Perhaps the team has absolute confidence he will not do that again this year. I certainly don't.
If they can't work out a deal with Free, they will have to find help somewhere else, and the free agent market is drying up rapidly. For that matter, the remaining options are starting to look way too much like Doug Free redux. They could find themselves having to hope one of the tackles already signed will step up - a rather dicey proposition.
Right tackle is now officially the make-or-break issue for the Cowboys. The available options are shrinking. If I am making a prediction, I think the starting job is down to Free or Parnell. I hope a better interior line will help whoever wins out succeed, but I don't want to pin my hopes on a chimera.
If the run on tackles had not taken all the good options off the table for the Cowboys in the draft, it might have been very different. But it happened the way it happened, and now we have to deal with what the team has. The pieces added in the draft were quite good and very much needed. They just needed one more that was not to be found. And now we have to hope that Free comes around, or Parnell flourishes. If neither happens, this could be another long season.