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Are The Cowboys Better Off With Ron Leary Starting At Left Guard?

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Thanks to impressive depth, the offensive line turned in their best performance of the season without Tyron Smith, and after La’el Collins left the game with an injury.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

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The Dallas Cowboys are built around the offensive line. Everybody knows it, from the front office to opposing teams to the fans and the media. There isn’t an offensive line in the NFL with more invested in it by way of top draft picks and money, and as Jason Garrett has mentioned in the past, they are the “heartbeat” of the team.

Despite that, the line had a very inconsistent start to the year. They weren’t terrible by any means, just inconsistent. While the pass protection against the Giants revamped defensive line was very good, the running game stalled to the tune of only 3.1 YPC between Ezekiel Elliott and Alfred Morris. Against the Redskins the running game somewhat rebounded as Elliott and Morris combined for right around 4 YPC, but the pass protection was shaky as Dak Prescott was sacked four times, including two from the unheralded Trent Murphy.

However, on Sunday night against the Bears everything clicked for this group despite the fact that Tyron Smith, arguably the team’s best lineman, missed the game with a mysterious back ailment suffered in practice on Friday, while left guard La’el Collins missed the second half with a toe injury that has since sidelined him for an undetermined time. It must be noted that the Bears front seven is one of the worst in the league following several significant injuries, but any fan that says they were completely comfortable with Chaz Green starting at left tackle would be lying no matter who the competition was. Despite a few penalties and sometimes shaky pass protection, Green generally acquitted himself well as the offensive line dominated the Bears front.

Elliott and Morris racked up nearly 160 yards while Prescott had plenty of time to work through his progressions and did not suffer a single sack. Of course most of the credit must go to Travis Frederick and Zack Martin as they both had their best games of the season, but the fact that the line could sustain the blows that they did and come out with their best performance of the season so far is very encouraging.

With that said, I want to focus a bit on the curious case of La’el Collins and Ronald Leary. Of course we all know the story, Leary was a part of the fantastic offensive line in 2014 and was the entrenched starter going into 2015. That all changed when La’el Collins, a lock to be taken in the first round of the 2015 draft, went undrafted due to a bizarre set of circumstances which found him signing with the Cowboys as an UDFA. Collins was a left tackle in college who many thought could play either tackle spot or guard, and the Cowboys found him best suited to play left guard. Leary started 2015 as the starter but was replaced by Collins just a few games in, making Leary perhaps the best non-starting offensive lineman in the league. Collins has since provided several highlight reel blocks but has struggled with consistency, especially in pass protection. It could be argued that Leary is actually the better player right now, but due to the fact that Collins has immense upside and an almost immeasurable ceiling, and perhaps the degenerative knee condition that Leary has which supposedly could flare up at any time, it is Leary who has found himself on the bench.

However, if one player on the line had to suffer an injury many would have picked Collins due to the fact that Leary is such a capable replacement, so with that in mind let’s take a look at how Leary did against the Bears compared to Collins in order to get a feel for where this line is going.

Before getting started I want to first say that for the most part Collins was very solid against the Bears, there were a few poor plays that stood out, but on the whole you have to say that he played well. However, there were some very poor snaps on his part, and the nature of which are starting to become a trend.

First let’s take a look at this play from the very first drive of the game:

Collins beaten by Willie Young

This play is reminiscent of the first game of the year where Olivier Vernon, a smaller, athletic edge rusher gave Collins fits when matched up inside. Collins was called for two critical holding penalties in the fourth quarter against the Giants on plays very similar to this one. Here, Willie Young beats Collins immediately with a swim move that leaves Collins bent at the waist, and Prescott’s athleticism is the only reason this play wasn’t ruined.

Here is a play from the second quarter where Collins just completely whiffs as he again bends at the waist and loses his balance, this time in the running game:

Collins Beaten in the Run Game

Then of course there is this:

Collins gets Pancaked

To be fair to Collins this happened at the very end of the first half and just a few plays later almost the exact same thing happened again where he ended a play flat on his back, so it’s very possible that he had already suffered the injury at this point and wasn’t playing at 100%. Even if that assumption is true, it doesn’t account for the complete whiffs earlier in the half, especially when similar struggles have been seen from him previously.

Leary played the entire second half and there was no noticeable drop-off. The running game was certainly less productive although much of that can be attributed to several empty carries at the end of the game where the Bears could load up to stop the run as they knew the Cowboys simply wanted to run out the clock. When watching the game live there was no real drop-off from the first to the second half in terms of the run game or pass protection.

The only play where Leary was clearly beaten came on his very first snap of the night where he failed to pick up a blitzing linebacker:

Leary Beaten by a Blitzing Linebacker

Aside from this play Leary had a very clean game, was strong in the run game and reliable in pass protection, with no penalties on the night.

In fact on a critical third and 1 in the fourth quarter they ran Elliott right behind Leary and Frederick to pick up the first:

Third and One Up the Middle

Now, there is a reason that Collins has been the unquestioned starter since a few games into the 2015 season and part of it is a play like this:

Collins Pulls Right

This is a play that Leary simply is not going to be able to execute as well as Collins does here. Collins shows great athleticism to pull all the way across the formation, engages the defender cleanly (that’s Leonard Floyd, the ninth-overall pick in 2016 by the way) and pushes him a good five yards straight back.

Even so, Leary is likely the more consistent player right now. He may not make as many eye-popping blocks but he won’t completely whiff a few times each game either. Collins clearly has immense upside but at what point is the excuse of inexperience no longer valid?

Leary surely had his struggles in 2014 at times in pass protection against smaller, more athletic linemen similar to Collins, but I think it’s fair to say that there will be no drop-off with Leary in the lineup, and there may actually be improvement.

The real question is what happens if there actually is improvement?

At what point do the Cowboys consider re-signing a very good player who will only be 28 in 2017?

Doug Free will be 33 in January and going into the last year of his deal in 2017, would the team consider releasing him, using some of that money to re-sign Leary and then move Collins to right tackle? Or perhaps Martin to right tackle with Leary or Collins moving to right guard?

Even if that plan never truly works out for whatever reason surely there would still be potential trade partners assuming Leary signs a reasonable deal, the question is would Leary even re-sign in Dallas considering how he’s been benched?

Obviously money will play a huge factor in this but if he plays well and is willing to sign a deal for say, $6 million a year, is the team really in position to turn their noses up at that with Doug Free on his way out?

This will be a very interesting situation to watch as the season goes on, and worst case scenario Leary simply walks in the offseason and the Cowboys likely net a decent compensatory pick in 2018.