The Cowboys O-line has combined for seven Pro Bowl appearances and two nominations for the All Pro team. It features three former first-round picks in Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin, as well as an undrafted free agent in La'el Collins who was widely held to be a first-round talent. Add nine-year veteran Doug Free, and you have what many are calling one of the best O-lines in the league.
And when the Cowboys kick off the 2016 season on September 11 against the New York Giants, only one member of the Cowboys O-line will be 26 years or older:
Tyron Smith (25) - La'el Collins (23) - Travis Frederick (25) - Zack Martin (25) - Doug Free (32)
For the Cowboys, the lineup above with an average age of 26.6 may be the most likely but not the only possible scenario. There's also the possibility that Chaz Green (24) might beat out Doug Free for a starting spot, or may eventually replace him as a starter over the course of the season, and it might not be as distant a possibility as you may have previously thought.
Green played OG on scout team. Sounds like they want him to compete with Free at ROT - so let's see. https://t.co/VtcujIw0El— Bryan Broaddus (@BryanBroaddus) May 13, 2016
They are going to push him to try and beat Free out. https://t.co/Dqoy50sWj3— Bryan Broaddus (@BryanBroaddus) May 13, 2016
With Green at right tackle, the line's average age would drop to 24.9, which would make The Cowboys O-line the second-youngest O-line in the NFL this year. If you're not a Cowboys fan, that's got to be a scary thought.
The NFL is a young man's game, and player agent Jack Bechta recently opined in the National Football Post that teams are more focused on age than ever.
In twenty-even years as an agent I never heard teams talk more about players ages than they do now. If you are on the wrong side of 30, not named Manning, Brady, or Brees, you may as well be ready for a tap on the shoulder any day to be shown the exit.
The graph below shows the age distribution of the 160 projected O-line starters for the 2016 season. The data for all 32 NFL teams is taken from the Ourlads.com team depth charts, which are usually quite accurate and up-to-date.
As you can, see the air gets progressively thinner beyond 30 years of age. 30 may not be a hard cut-off point, but the trend is not your friend if you're over 30. Three linemen are currently projected as starters in 2015 who'll be 34 years or older on opening weekend 2016 (Jason Peters of the Eagles, former teammate Evan Mathis, now with the Cardinals, and Andrew Whitworth of the Bengals).
But back to the Cowboys and where they rank in the league. Here's how all NFL teams compare in total combined O-line age, based on the Ourlads.com depth charts (which for the Cowboys still includes Doug Free):
|Rank||Team||Tot. Age||Rank||Team||Tot. Age||Rank||Team||Tot. Age|
Keep in mind that these are averages, and because there are only five guys counting against the total of each team, having an older veteran on the line can give a false impression if you only look at the average, and the Cowboys are a case in point, as the average would drop to 24.9, the second lowest in the league, if Green replaces Free.
As a general rule, you want your O-line (like any other position other than perhaps QB) to be younger rather than older, as Billy Beane, executive VP of baseball operations of the Oakland A's and protagonist of Michael Lewis's Moneyball, explained in an interview with the Financial Times in 2010.
"Nothing strangulates a sports club more than having older players on long contracts," explains Beane, "As they become older, the risk of injury becomes exponential. It’s less costly to bring [on] a young player. If it doesn’t work, you can go and find the next guy, and the next guy. The downside risk is lower, and the upside much higher."
And a quick look at the cap totals for the youngest and oldest O-lines seems to confirm this: The Titans O-line currently has the 5th-lowest cap hit at $14.3 million, the Eagles O-line has the 3rd-highest cap hit at $34.2 million. Obviously those numbers are a mid-May snapshot and could still change, but there is no doubt that younger O-lines come at a (relatively) lower cap hit. And as Beane points out, they have one more thing in their favor: availability. As O-lines become older, the risk of injury (and with it the risk of missing playing time) increases exponentially.
For the Cowboys, their investment in the offensive line is paying off nicely. Not only do they have one of the best lines in the league, they also have a young core, which they have been continuously refreshing.
But nothing lasts forever, and at some point even the Cowboys O-line will grow older and (much) more expensive - if the Cowboys don't bing in fresh blood regularly. And that's why they drafted Chaz Green last year, and why they had Connor McGovern (5th round pick by Denver) and Isaac Seumalo (3rd round pick by Philly) in for official pre-draft visits this year. They may not be sexy picks, but they are the type of picks that keep your O-line young, affordable, and effective.
Tyron Smith is entering his sixth year in the league, Travis Frederick is on the brink of his fourth, and Zack Martin is looking at his third year. Combined with La'el Collins and Chaz Green, they could still form the second-youngest O-line in the league.