For awhile, the Dallas Cowboys had assembled their roster on flashy draft picks, headlined by skill player after skill player. Prior to the 2011 NFL Draft, when the Cowboys selected Tyron Smith in the first round, the franchise hadn't used a first-round pick on the offensive line since the 1981 NFL Draft. Yep, you're reading that correctly. A thirty year span where the Cowboys stayed away from an offensive lineman in the first round. Since 2011, the Cowboys have used two more first-round picks on offensive lineman in Travis Frederick in the 2013 NFL Draft and in Zack Martin in the 2014 NFL Draft.
Dating back to Tony Romo's first snap with the Cowboys, the talent level was always there for skill players. It was the trenches on both sides of the football that continued to be the reason for this team's inability to get over the top. With Smith, Frederick, and Martin, the Cowboys' commitment to building the offensive line finally paid off in 2014 when the Cowboys finished 12-4 and won a game in the playoffs.
That season proved that the Cowboys' offensive line was the best in football and that a good offensive line can take you far. Many NFL teams followed suit. The Washington Redskins selected Brandon Scherff with the fifth-overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. Scherff was moved to guard right away and the move paid huge dividends. Washington featured a more balanced running game that set up the pass well, making defenses load the box to open up coverage holes for their receivers to exploit.
In 2015, despite a heavy focus on defenses keying in to stop the Cowboys' rushing attack, Dallas' unit upfront still managed to produce even with the ineptness at the quarterback position. This unit took a Darren McFadden, who hadn't rushed the ball more than 200 times since 2012, and made him into one of the league's top rushers. With a much more talented and intriguing prospect coming to take the bell cow role in 2016, one can only wonder how good Dallas' rushing attack and offense will be in 2016.
The return of Romo improves the offensive line as well. This may sound odd, how exactly does a quarterback improve his offensive line? Romo's elusiveness and escape-ability make things easier for the offensive line to flush players out of the pocket. And with a stout blocking back in Elliott, Romo will have a ton of time to go through his progressions and find his receivers.
Let's take a look at the Cowboys' projected depth chart for the upcoming season:
Left Tackle: Tyron Smith, Chaz Green
Left Guard: La'el Collins, Ronald Leary, Joe Looney
Center: Travis Frederick, Joe Looney
Right Guard: Zack Martin, Ronald Leary, Joe Looney
Right Tackle: Doug Free, Chaz Green
The same starting five aren't changing anytime soon. Smith is under contract until after the 2023 season. Collins is entering the second year of his three-year deal that truly cost the Cowboys pennies in terms of what he should've made. The Cowboys picked up Travis Frederick's team option in the last year of his deal and because of that, both him and Zack Martin are under contract through the 2017 season. Free will make $9 million over the course of the next to seasons, but if the Cowboys choose to cut him before this season, they will spend $3 million in dead money in comparison to $1.5 million in dead money if they chose to cut him before the 2017 season.
Because of the limited space on an NFL 53-man roster, the Cowboys have some tough decisions to make in the upcoming weeks as they will have to cut people to get down to the aforementioned number. One trend I've seen out of the Cowboys over the past few years is that their offensive lineman backups consist of players that can play multiple positions. If you notice above, the three names I'm looking at are Ronald Leary, Joe Looney, and Chaz Green.
That would give the Cowboys eight players on the offensive line for the upcoming season. We've all heard about the situation with Leary and what his future will be in Dallas. Leary deserves to start in this league and while he could look for a trade all he wants, the reality is that he provides unbelievable insurance to the Cowboys and he'll likely be a backup for the year before going elsewhere in free agency.
The Cowboys are grooming Chaz Green to replace Doug Free. The Cowboys can wait until after this year or even two years to make a move with Free because of his contract. It will all depend on Green's progress this season.
Looney was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in the fourth round in the 2012 NFL Draft. While Looney is not as good of a stopgap option as Leary is, he's still a guy who started five games in 2015 for the Tennessee Titans. Dallas loves its offensive lineman who can step up and play a few roles if called upon. Looney is that guy and with a cap figure of just $1.675 million over the course of two years, Dallas is getting his services at a great value.
If all goes as planned, the Cowboys' offense is going to be one of the bests in football, one that is spearheaded by this offensive line. Dallas may have three All-Pros and one that is very much on his way in Collins, there is still room for improvement for this group. Outside of Free, the average age of this starting line is about 24 years old. With some room to grow and an offense loaded with playmakers like Elliott, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten with a quarterback who bring this team far in the playoffs, it's scary to think the success this offensive line can have in 2016 and in the future.