Jerry Jones, owner and general manager of the Dallas Cowboys, gets a lot of things said about him, much of it, shall we say, a tad unflattering. Today, I want to make one positive observation about him: He has proven conclusively that he is one old dog that is more than able to learn a new trick.
I say that because way, way back in the dim and distant past of the NFL - like about 2010 - it was a known and pretty much unalterable fact of life that the Cowboys, under Jones, did not draft offensive linemen in the first round. It just did not happen. As a result, one of the problems that the team had in the meltdown season that year was an aging, slow line that was just not getting it done.
Now, just four years later, the Cowboy will most likely line up on offense with three first-round draft picks on that line. And they are all 23 years old. That, folks, is a serious investment in building a team from the trenches.
This is the offensive line installment in my look at the current state of the Dallas roster prior to training camp. It is nice to have so many positive things to say. The next one goes over to the defensive side of the line, and things are not nearly as settled anywhere there.
If you have missed the previous parts of this series, here are the links to catch up on them:
As with the rest of the offense, there are very few questions about the starters on the line, although it does have the one position that we can't go ahead and write in ink.
The four solids: Going left to right, these are the players who are expected to start this season.
LT Tyron Smith: He has become a veteran leader of this group, entering his fourth year in the league. He is garnering recognition as one of the best tackles in the league, going to his first Pro Bowl last season. He will not be 30 until December 12th, 2020. And by the way, if you call him Tyronasaurus, that started here.
C Travis Frederick: The man we like to refer to as Fredbeard came in as a rookie last year and started all sixteen games. According to some, such as Pro Football Focus, he was one of the top centers in the league, all while learning the NFL game. How confident is the team in him? They don't even have another pure center on the 90-man roster.
RG Zack Martin. I suddenly realized we are falling down on our jobs here. We came up with a nickname for Smith, and he is now a top ten tackle in the league. We came up with one for Frederick, and he made the top ten as a rookie. We have got to come up with a Blogging The Boys official nickname for Martin!
In a very real sense, Martin is the direct result of Smith and Frederick. Two times the Cowboys have drafted offensive linemen in the first round, put them directly into the starting lineup, and had excellent, even outstanding results. Now they are going back to the well. Martin has taken his snaps with the first team from the first day of OTAs, and all indications are that he is fully meeting expectations.
RT Doug Free. After a disappointing 2012 season and a subsequent pay cut negotiated with the team, Free bounced back and had a much better performance last year. Although some reviews of his efficiency last year were most likely a bit inflated (especially the several weeks early on that PFF had him rated as the best tackle in the league), he was clearly back on the being-part-of-the-solution side of the equation.
The two starters fighting for one spot. As you are no doubt aware (or, if this is the first time you have read, seen, or heard anything about the Cowboys since the first round of the draft, as you can figure out by process of elimination), that leaves only the left guard position undetermined. Because of the addition of Martin, the Cowboys are able to have both starting guards from the end of last season, Ronald Leary and Mackenzy Bernadeau, competing for the last starting job on the line - with whoever doesn't get the starting job almost certain to keep their job with the team as a very key backup.
Conventional wisdom is that Leary has the lead, since he was the LG for all sixteen games last year. Bernadeau started the season at RG, was bumped to a backup job by the acquisition of Brian Waters, then came back and completed the year after Waters' season ending injury. I doubt it is quite that simple, because multiple sources maintain that Bernadeau was playing better than Leary, and arguably Waters, by the end of the season.
Complicating it a bit is the fact that Bernadeau is also the backup center. There, conventional wisdom holds that the team would want to put him in a backup role so any problem with Frederick would only require one move, not two as it would if Bernadeau was starting at LG and had to kick over to center.
I just don't think that the team is going to make the decision on anything other than who looks like the best player at left guard. Why keep a better player on the sidelines where he might not play all year? And there are other ways to address that center issue. If I were forced to bet, I would bet Bernadeau winds up winning the starting job outright. The good news is that the team really doesn't have a bad option here.
There is very little doubt that Dallas has the five starting positions on the O line covered, plus one interior line backup. That is six players.
The Cowboys currently have fifteen linemen in camp, or enough to put a first-, second- and third-string line on the field when all are healthy. That is likely the main objective. In light of the fact that Dallas will carry from eight to ten linemen total, probably with eight the most likely, that means most of the rest of the players are, well, camp bodies.
Basically, you have two groups, the veterans and the rookies. Trying to split the players our by position is a little tricky, because there is a decided preference in Dallas for players who can handle more than one position. It makes going light on the line a lot easier if each backup can handle two or even three of the positions.
The veterans: Two of these players are the most likely candidates for the swing, or backup tackle job. Jermey Parnell and Darrion Weems had this same battle last season. Parnell was supposed to be challenging Free for the starting RT position the way he had in 2012, but the converted basketball player never seemed to make a run at it. Instead, he found himself pressured by Weems, a player the coaches seem to like. Weems got stashed on the practice squad, but I think this is going to be a very interesting battle to watch through training camp and preseason.
That leaves two other veterans. One, John Wetzel, is also a tackle, and frankly seems most likely to just be here to fill a spot for practice. The other is the lone veteran guard Dallas brought in just recently, Uche Nwaneri. My friend Landon McCool looked at video of Nwaneri. He saw an athletic player with surprisingly bad technique for someone who has started as many NFL games as he has. Nwaneri himself has stated that he understands his primary function is also to fill in for training camp, but to also give the second- and third-string quarterbacks some more reliable protection so they can show what they can do.
Is he also a challenger for a backup position? Anyone on the roster has a crack, and with 92 NFL starts on his resume per Pro Football Reference.com, he probably has a better shot at it than most. Is there a place for him on the 53-man roster? It might depend on whether he has any ability to snap the ball.
The UDFA rookies: For the most part, these players are auditioning for a practice squad offer, There are three guards, Brian Clarke, Andre Cureton, and Ronald Patrick, plus two tackles, Josh Aladenoye and Darius Morris. I've seen Clarke get some nice mentions, but moving ahead of the veteran players on this team is a steep hill for any of these guys to climb. Best bet for them to have a chance: Practice snapping the ball, both direct and shotgun. As I mentioned above, I think Dallas will go into the season with a total of eight O linemen. Five starters, one swing tackle, and I think they would prefer a couple of guards who can also handle the center position in a pinch. So anyone looking to catch on with this team as an interior lineman would be well advised to work on the position flexibility.
That wraps up the offense. Hang on for the D. It's gonna be a sometimes bumpy ride.