There is a lot of excitement about the 2016 season for fans of the Dallas Cowboys. While many questions remain about the defense, the offense is believed by almost everyone to be loaded. The passing game should be back with a healthy Tony Romo and Dez Bryant. And the running game may be spectacular with shiny new toy Ezekiel Elliott. But the foundation for all this is the offensive line, acknowledged by almost everyone as one of the best in the league, and considered by many as the very top unit in the NFL. It has been built over several years through a careful plan and meticulously plotted draft moves.
Or at least, that is the myth.
The truth is that the building of the Cowboys' offensive line is a great example of how building a roster in the NFL is far more art than science, where being opportunistic works far better than deeply detailed advance plans, and it is always better to be lucky than good. With so much of the plans for the 2016 season actually built on the foundation of this line, it is interesting to look back at just how the team got here. It not only illustrates some things about the approach Dallas takes to building its roster, and how it has gone through a serious evolution in recent years, but it also points out some of our misconceptions about personnel acquisition throughout the league.
It all started with the drafting of the foundational member of the Dallas line. We all remember the day this building block on which so much would be raised was picked in the draft.
No, not the 2011 draft when Tyron Smith came to Dallas. I'm talking about 2007, when Doug Free was taken by the Cowboys with the second of two fourth-round picks that year. While injuries hampered the first two years of his career, he developed into a solid tackle who also has provided important veteran leadership as the rest of the very young group has been brought together. To borrow a take from our podcast team of Landon McCool and Joey Ickes, if Doug Free is your best offensive lineman, you are in real trouble, but if he is your worst, you are in very good shape, indeed.
Smith was the second piece of this puzzle, and he marked a major shift in the draft philosophy of the Cowboys. Since Jerry Jones bought the team, it had never used a first-round pick on a lineman. It had found good success with a mixture of later picks, including second-rounders Larry Allen, Flozell Adams, and Anthony Gurode, along with some nice free agent pickups like Marc Colombo, but the first round was just seen as too high a price to pay for linemen. Until 2011. With the ninth-overall pick, the Cowboys had a chance to get an outstanding and very young offensive tackle. This was also the first draft with Jason Garrett as head coach, and he likely was an influence in leading the team to make the shift in approach. After his first season as the right tackle, Smith and Free swapped places, and the team has not looked back on that decision.
Smith was a selection that was probably well thought out in advance, since it was so early in the draft. However, once you get past the first ten or fifteen picks, things get quite murky in planning ahead. Teams are forced to deal with who has gone off the board ahead of them, and once you get into the second half of the first round, they find that many of their preferred targets are long gone. That is what happened in 2013 for Dallas. In the now infamous situation that developed, there was a major disconnect between the scouting and coaching staffs when Dallas went on the clock at 19. The board assembled by the scouting staff had Sharrif Floyd as the best remaining player, but the decision to shift from the 3-4 to the 4-3 scheme led the coaching staff to vigorously disagree with that. The coaches won what appeared to be a somewhat heated argument, and Dallas traded back to 31. There, they selected Travis Frederick. He was seen by most outside the Cowboys' organization as a third-round talent or so. His pick led to the draft being widely panned in the immediate post draft grades. This shows just how pointless those grades are, of course, as Frederick has become a repeat participant in the Pro Bowl and is now considered one of the best centers in the NFL, as well as the linchpin for the entire line.
This was one of those picks where the Cowboys are criticized by some for trying to outsmart the rest of the league. In this case, that is exactly what they did. This is not to say they have not gotten it very wrong at times, but it shows why they continue to try and find players that the rest of the league undervalues. It is risky, because by definition they are seeing something that others do not. But when it works, it lets them really leverage their draft capital. Scouting is very subjective. The aspect of how players fit for a team is often overlooked, and something that became more of a focus for the Cowboys after the Floyd-Frederick episode as Will McClay was promoted specifically to make sure this did not happen again.
Frederick was a case of making a decision based on what the team thought they knew that others have missed. The next part of the line was a matter of turning bad luck into a good thing. As their spot drew nearer in 2014, the team was set on picking linebacker Ryan Shazier. But the Pittsburgh Steelers also coveted him, and they had the pick right in front of Dallas. This left the Cowboys with only one remaining first-round grade on their board, Zack Martin. After taking two offensive linemen in the first round over the previous three years, this was not the direction they planned to go. They could have elected to trade down, but decided to stick with their board. While there was truly not a wrong choice between Shazier and Martin, Dallas has had nothing to complain about with how it turned out, and Martin immediately established himself as one of the elite guards in the league, despite being converted from his college position at tackle. He went to the Pro Bowl as a rookie, and his addition led to the emergence of the Cowboys' line as one of the elite units in pro football.
Bad luck played a huge part for the Cowboys in 2015, but this time it was the horrible misfortune that befell La'el Collins. Prior to the draft, he was seen as sure-fire first-round pick and a likely top ten player. But his former girlfriend was tragically murdered just prior to the draft, and the police wanted to question him. This scared off the entire league, leading him to go undrafted and costing him millions of dollars. The Cowboys dispatched a team of scouts and investigators to Baton Rouge and determined that he would be found to have no connection to the death of his ex, which turned out to be correct. They then put on a full court press to sign him as a UDFA, and got his name on a contract before he ever visited another team. He wound up becoming a starter when Ron Leary was injured last season. (Leary himself was a major UDFA acquisition, having gone undrafted because of concerns over a degenerative knee condition.)
Now the Cowboys have not only one of the most talented offensive lines, with four legitimate first-round talents to line up alongside the wily Free, but one of the youngest. Given that O linemen have some of the longest productive careers in the league, this unit could be dominant for the better part of another decade. And having it in place set the table to draft Elliott with the fourth-overall pick. The Cowboys have gone with putting the best running back available behind what is seen by so many as the best line in the league, with one of the best quarterback-wide receiver combos to provide truly impressive offensive potential. And it was as much by chance and jumping at some last minute opportunities as design. Probably, it was much more the former than the latter.
This is the real truth of building an NFL roster. Planning and building a draft board, as well as the list of free agents to seek, are all well and good, but there are 31 other teams also putting their concentrated efforts into doing the exact same thing with the same pool of available players. After the first few picks of the draft, and from the very start of free agency, reaction is crucial. Hindsight makes it look like the Cowboys executed a brilliant plan to assemble what is hoped to be the next iteration of the Great Wall of Dallas, but so many of the moves could easily have never happened. It is perhaps one way in which the evolving philosophy of building the team, which has shifted in favor of youth, using the draft, and growing your own stars over acquiring top-level veterans, has been a factor in success. But the team is still struggling with their picks after the first round, and of course all this is just potential for the coming season that has to play out on the field.
Still, the Cowboys are poised to have something truly special on offense. It all starts with the big uglies up front (and frankly Smith and Fredbeard are each in their own way some fearsomely fine specimens of men if you are honest). That foundation came about through a fascinating series of twists and turns that not only could not have been predicted, but were highly unlikely.
As was said, it is always better to be lucky than good, although some of both always helps.