The Dallas Cowboys are stacked on offense. With a great quarterback, great running back, great receiving weapons, and great offensive line - the offense should be poised to rack up the points in 2017.
But if there is one area of concern on the Cowboys offense it resides on the offensive line. The team has three All Pro’s that are the anchor to the line. Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin are all outstanding. They are arguably one of the best, if not the very best at their respective positions.
Third-year player La’el Collins is the fourth piece to the line and will now hold down the right tackle position after Doug Free made the decision to retire. The general consensus is that people feel pretty good about this transition. Collins has done a solid job so far in training camp. It sounds weird to say this, but as talented as La’el is, he’s not at the point where he can bring the same consistency as Free. He will have some plays where he will flatten the defender, but then there are other times that he’ll remind you that this is his first NFL season playing the tackle spot. It won’t be all sunshine and rainbows, but Collins is still a pretty good blocker for the Cowboys.
That leaves the left guard position. Last year, this was a position of strength as the team had two quality options at the position last year in Collins and Ron Leary. With Collins moving over to tackle and Ron Leary leaving in free agency to play for the Denver Broncos, suddenly a large hole appears.
Leary’s departure was a foregone conclusion and the Cowboys have been preparing for this. They brought in Jonathan Cooper towards the end of last season so they could get a good look at him. They liked what they saw and re-signed him to a one-year deal this offseason. When news broke that Free was retiring, the team also signed free agent Byron Bell to a similar deal. Add those guys to the returning players of Chaz Green and Joe Looney and it looked like the Cowboys had a good pool of candidates to choose from as they searched for the missing piece.
So how do things look halfway through training camp? Well, there are some problems.
Problem #1: Chaz Green struggles to stay healthy
The Cowboys third-round draft pick from 2015 has flashed the best play of any of the candidates thus far. In a perfect world, he’d be the team’s best option to play the left guard spot. Unfortunately, the world Green lives in is full of ice in a bathtub as he constantly finds himself facing some type of injury. Most recently, it’s his shoulder. He’s a good player, but availability is ability and he just can’t stay on the football field.
Problem #2: Byron Bell and Joe Looney aren’t good
I didn’t know a whole lot about Bell until I spent time watching him play in preseason games. Over and over and sometimes in slow motion, my eyes would focus in on #75 as I tried to study his game. It’s been nightmarish so far. He doesn’t move well and just looks like he’s unsure of who he is supposed to be blocking sometimes. They way he’s performed to this point shows no sign of being a viable piece the Cowboys offensive line.
Looney is a low-ceiling guy that just doesn’t have the athletic ability to be a good player in this league. But one thing he does have is effort. He keeps his feet moving and has some effect on the play to where he’s not a complete liability. I could live with him being a reserve guard, but it would be scary if he was the starter.
Problem #3: Emmett Cleary is struggling
One of the luxuries of having all these tackles tryout for the guard spot was the fact that the team had Cleary in their back pocket as a last resort swing tackle. He logged some snaps last year and wasn’t too bad actually. But he’s looked terrible so far in preseason. To his credit, he’s been filling in for Tyron Smith so Cleary has to go against the right defensive ends of the opposing team, but that’s what a swing tackle has to be able to do. He just looks outmatched on almost every play.
All these problems have one simple solution - make Cooper the starting left guard and move Green to swing tackle.
Cooper has looked the best so far in preseason out of all these candidates (Chaz hasn’t played yet). He holds his blocks well and there are times where he looks very similar to Leary. After watching all these other linemen play, you start to appreciate the skills of the former seventh-overall pick from 2013. He’s nowhere close to that type of player, but he’s playing well enough to be the final cog in the wheel.
Starting Cooper at left guard means Green can take on a backup role as either a swing tackle or backup guard. His flexibility allows him to do that. More importantly, this would help preserve his health. It’s never a teams goal to draft a player in the third round so they can become a backup, but right now, this looks like the best combination for the Cowboys.
I’ve heard some throw out the idea of moving Collins back inside and letting Green play RT. After seeing what the team has at guard, that’s not inconceivable, however what do they do if Green gets hurt? If that happens, they’d be forced to move Collins back to tackle and have someone else play guard. That would mean two new changes to the offensive line. That’s not really the route they’d want to go considering how important continuity is to this group.
Commit to it now. Keep Cooper in there with the first team and let the starting unit settle into their roles. With Tyron getting extra rest days, Green will get plenty of work at left tackle as well as working in with the second unit at guard.
This ultimately looks like the best scenario for the Cowboys offensive line. What about you? Who do you think should start at LG? Who do you think are the team’s best reserve options?