Anytime you mention the name Doug Free it can only be met with opposite reactions. There are those of us who believe that Free spent 10 years as a solid piece but not incredible. Then there are others who cringe and can envision false starts and holding penalties.
Either way, Free’s absence is not going to be a cakewalk to replace. The saying that has followed Free has been “if he’s your fifth-best lineman, you’re doing pretty good but if he’s the best, you’re in trouble.” Free has been the elder statesmen for the past few seasons but it’s time to move on and the Cowboys will get younger at the position.
The front office and coaching staff have watched over the past several years as Free has battled nagging injuries and had an idea that he was likely on his last legs with the team. The Cowboys have put the swing tackle position on par with a starting role. Dating back to Jermey Parnell, the Cowboys have always wanted to have insurance at that position.
In 2015, the Cowboys drafted Chaz Green in the third round to handle the swing duties but he would end up red-shirting his rookie season with a hip injury that sat him out until December. He would be inactive for the entire final month of the season. He returned to the Cowboys for the offseason program but was a bit out of shape and had a sprained foot. Once he returned from the foot sprain, he had sort of an up and down training camp. To say that everyone was confident in his abilities to start a game if needed, would be a gross overstatement.
With that said, Green actually made something of himself and impressed some folks. During the beginning of the 2016 season, Tyron Smith was dealing with back injuries and needed a spell. Chaz Green stepped in and started two games for Smith and played rather well.
The one thing that Green has that made the Cowboys like him is fluidity and good footwork. Green doesn’t struggle to recover and reset. He plays with this half-man relationship with the defender because Green’s punch is lacking. However, he has quick feet to get back and recover to offset the rush. Green also has shown improvement in the limited action he has seen. The problem is that he can’t stay on the field as Green underwent herniated disc surgery and was placed on injured reserve in December.
The Cowboys will let Chaz Green compete for the starting right tackle position this offseason, but it doesn’t change the need for a potential replacement. With Green’s litany of injuries and Dallas’ belief that the offensive line is the key, they must address it at some point.
Herein lies the other issue, this year’s draft class is not particularly strong in depth or talent at the tackle position. Guys like Dane Brugler, Bryan Broaddus, and even Mike Mayock have been vocal saying that it’s the weak link of 2017. Whereas there is tremendous depth at running back, defensive line, and defensive back; tackle sticks out like the ugly sister. Here’s Mayock on the state of the tackles:
“It's not a good tackle class,” Mayock said. “It's one of the few groups that isn't really strong this year. I've got [Ryan] Ramczyk and [Garett] Bolles one and two. After those two kids -- and when I say that, I've got Cam Robinson as a guard. He could also play tackle, obviously. But I think there is a drop-off after Ramczyk and Bolles. In a typical year, 10 tackles go in the first three rounds, and I can't find 10 guys that I would give grades to their rounds one through three.
If Ramczyk was in last year's draft, he would be the fourth or fifth guy taken. So just to give you some perspective there. So I think Ramczyk and Bolles are going to get pushed up a little bit, just because there is a drop off after them.
There is a lot of depth in the interior offensive line ... But trying to get a starting tackle in this draft is going to be difficult.”
Still, that doesn’t change the fact that teams like the Broncos and Seahawks need offensive linemen and have a weakness themselves. What that does with some teams, not necessarily those two, who draft very well, is it can sway your evaluation into thinking guys are better than they actually are.
In fact, CBS has only three tackles in the first round and none crack the Top-15 players on the big board. DraftTek only has two tackles in their first-round and the first one (Ryan Ramczyk) ranks 15th, the next one (Garett Bolles) doesn’t show up until 27. Compared to the tackles that have come out of college in the past few years, I would wager to say these Top-2 prospects would be pushed into the second round or later.
Let’s see if maybe we can turn to free agency for a little help? The top guys still on the market, Jake Long (32) is probably a bit older than you would like. The next guy is a familiar foe in William Beatty (oft-injured) and we would take Warren Beatty (two-time Oscar Winner) before the former New York Giant who isn’t all that good when he is on the field.
We are well aware that the Cowboys value the offensive line as the position of power in their organization. There are a few guys later in the draft that might warrant a look or two but this is not the year for Dallas to get desperate at tackle. They have in-house options if they are in a pinch that they could look at as well. What it comes down to is that this is really a year where Chaz Green needs to take a huge step forward, if not, this will be the talking point come draft season of 2018.