Last summer, fans of the Dallas Cowboys were praying at the altar of the football gods, hoping that local product Brian Waters would decide to not only play football in 2013 but that he would do so close to home. We were desperate for someone to come in and add a bit of stability to a position group that had plagued the team for quite some time. Just 365 days later, having Waters around would be nice, but it would only add to the embarrassment of riches that the Cowboys offensive front is becoming. Currently the 'Boys have three men with NFL starting experience in competition for one slot.
Among the settled postions there is Tyron Smith, who suffered a sophomore slump after switching sides on the line: this time around, he is coming off of a Pro Bowl season at left tackle. The former USC lineman has become a franchise player for Dallas and the catalyst for the rebuild that has been taking place up front during the Jason Garrett era. Barring serious injury Smith will be the nucleus for the offensive line for another decade. Now entering his fourth (yes, his fourth) NFL season the Tyronasaurus is still as young as or younger than many players who will be rookies in 2014. That bodes well for both now and the future; Smith is proving himself to be the player that Dallas believed him to be on draft day.
His counterpart at the other bookend will be Doug Free. Yes, that guy. Formerly known for serving as a turnstile on the way to the Dallas backfield, Free rebounded in the 2013 season and acquitted himself as a solid right tackle. All it took was a significant pay-cut to motivate the veteran offensive lineman to return to form. While the 2013 version of Doug Free's game was not quite up to the standard that earned him a four year, $32 million dollar contract, the Cowboys right tackle played much better than he did in 2011 and 2012. Maybe he would have been successful without the pay-cut, maybe not, but either way the Dallas offensive lineman earned his pay in 2013 and will be looking for a second shot at a big contract this year.
Tackle may have been a position of some concern for the Cowboys, but the interior of the offensive line was the stuff that gave coaches, general managers, and especially quarterbacks, ulcers. Several seasons of dismal offensive line play had led up to the point where fans were clamoring for the team to invest in an aging Brian Waters.The six-time Pro Bowl guard did join the Cowboys for seven games last season, but the biggest addition for the team was rookie center Travis Frederick, who was honored with All Rookie status last season. The Wisconsin graduate solidified the interior of the offensive line for the Cowboys. The future looks bright as "Fredbeard" enters his second season in the league.
Mackenzy Bernadeau and Ron Leary, the starting pair of guards for the majority of the season last year proved themselves to be a solid but not stellar pair in 2013, but for the coming season they will both be in competition for a single starting slot. Neither is guaranteed a position with the ones, and actually they could wind up as the back up corps as Dallas brought in another guard with NFL level starting experience. Uche Nwaneri was signed to the team's roster and as he told my fellow front page writer, Tom Ryle, he didn't come to town with the intention of riding the pine. Remember, these three gentlemen are battling for just one slot. The other guard slot is expected to be filled by another rookie first-round draft pick.
Zack Martin became the Cowboys third opening round offensive line selection in the last four seasons and he is expected to assume the starting role at the right guard this season. This will allow him a season to adapt to the NFL before the possibility that he kicks outside to replace Doug Free, who is in the final year of his contract this year. Martin anchored a stout Notre Dame offensive line as a collegiate player, and all indications are that the young man will continue to experience success as he progresses in his professional career.
One year ago the Dallas OL was a serious question mark as the season approached. Twelve months later we are discussing that same unit as one of the team's strengths. With only one, perhaps two, additions to the starting line up; the Cowboys have essentially developed this core group in-house with the guidance of coaches Bill Callahan and Frank Pollack. The team has quietly experienced a success that is slowly being discussed as one of the better front lines in the game. It may be the second coming of the "Great Wall", or it may not. That does not matter. For Tony Romo and the rest of the so called skill position players, what matters is that they will now have the benefit of playing with a very solid group of offensive linemen and that will make their jobs much easier in 2014.