For 2017, the NFL partnered with Ford to present the first Ford Built Tough Offensive Line of the Year award. Fittingly, it went to the offensive line of the Dallas Cowboys. No other team in the league bases its identity on the big guys up front the way Dallas does. And that identity is the very embodiment of the award.
This is already the most honored group of linemen in the league this year, with Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, and Tyron Smith all being named first team All Pro and selected for the Pro Bowl. When sixty percent of your starters have already raked in those awards, it is not hard to see why the group as a whole would garner a collective award.
Smith was the beginning of the heavy investments that the Cowboys have made over the past few years in the offensive line, and marked the first time the team had spent a first-round draft pick on an offensive linemen in the Jerry Jones era. He is regarded as one of the most athletic and technically sound left tackles in the league. His reputation is that once he gets his hands on you, you are done for that play.
Frederick is one of the few draft picks from the 2013 class to prove worthy of a first-round pick, with only ten of that group having made the Pro Bowl to date. The irony is delicious, since his selection was roundly panned as a terrible reach by the Cowboys, but he has been perhaps the best value of that entire round so far in his career. Many consider him the best center in the league now.
Martin was famously, or infamously, known as the player the Cowboys took instead of Jerry Jones’ preferred choice, Johnny Manziel. Avoiding that raging dumpster fire alone makes him a valuable move, but he has been far more than that. Playing next to Frederick, he gives the team a simply tremendous interior line.
Joining the three All Pros are Ronald Leary and Doug Free. Leary, of course, was not the starter to begin the year, but stepped in when La’el Collins was injured, and he played as well as his more honored linemates. That excellent performance will almost certainly lead to him being paid handsomely somewhere else in the league, as Collins is expected to return this fall and the team is unlikely to be willing to match what some other team will offer Leary.
Free is the old man of the group at 33 - all the rest are 26 or younger - and is generally regarded as the “weak link”. However, he is still a capable player, and would be able to win a starting job on several other NFL teams. And his veteran leadership had a great deal to do with the development of his younger cohorts.
The success the Cowboys had in 2016 was largely based on the foundation of this line, as they provided consistently excellent protection for rookie quarterback Dak Prescott and opened the holes for league rushing leader and rookie Ezekiel Elliott. Dallas is one of the few teams using the old-school run-centric approach today, and that line is what allows them to be so successful. The same basic group has now cleared the way for two rushing champions in three years, having led the way for DeMarco Murray in 2014. They are certainly deserving to be the first such group recognized for this honor.