It’s become a popular opinion to question the Cowboys’ stranglehold as the NFL’s best offensive line. Uncertainty has crept into the minds behind a few recent rankings that both claim a different unit deserves the top spot. Both Brandon Thorn of Inside the Pylon and Gary Horton of FanRag Sports have the Cowboys playing second-fiddle to two other NFL clubs. For Thorn, it was the Oakland Raiders and Horton chose the Pittsburgh Steelers. Here is what they said about their concerns that kept Dallas at second:
Thorn: The LG position is the biggest wildcard on the OL. The competition is between second-year OL Chaz Green, or fourth year OG and former top 10 draft pick Jonathan Cooper. My money would be on Cooper getting the first legitimate crack at the job, considering his pedigree and, although limited, a more experienced and developed skill set than Green possesses.
Horton: They do not have quite the depth that we have seen, but they are smart and well-coached by Frank Pollack.
No surprise there, the changes at left guard and right tackle are causing a little uneasiness from fans too. Still, Ronald Leary is perhaps appreciated more now by pundits than he ever was when he actually played in Dallas. Doug Free’s retirement is also a popular demerit in many offseason articles when he was considered the weakest link for the last few years. It’s change to the one of the most dominant units in football that’s leaving that unsettling feeling.
Having said that, the Cowboys still have a leg up on all their competition for Top-Dog and here’s why.
First, let’s tackle Horton’s comment about depth within the unit. Outside of the last two seasons of depth at left guard, they haven’t exactly been two-deep at every position, no team is. Depth is far too expensive to keep as we’ve seen recently with Leary and even back in 2015 with Jermey Parnell.
There’s the starting five, anchored by a trio of All-Pros plus two unproven first-round talents and a mixed bag of backups. Joe Looney and Byron Bell are two backups with starting experience. With the salary cap, depth is a concern for every team and almost impossible to sustain.
Concerns about Jonathan Cooper stepping in for the departed Leary are pretty overblown. In his debut with the starters, he ended up earning PFF’s game ball against the Colts:
There really hasn’t been a battle for the left guard spot though the Cowboys have tried to create one. Chaz Green looked significantly out of place at guard. Nate Newton pointed out that once Green was put in at tackle, he looked just fine, until getting hurt, again. Cooper most certainly saw the benefit of playing in between two top-end talents. Thorn was actually right on the money with this statement:
“Playing in-between Smith and Frederick will require the LG to play sound, smart football above all else. There is no need for a war-daddy here, rather a guy who will play disciplined, smart, and tough. Cooper has done that in his career. Last season saw Cooper being waived twice before finally landing in Dallas, the perfect scenario playing between the best LT and C in the NFL”
Cooper’s main goal is to just stay healthy but behind him is Looney, who is a capable starter as mentioned earlier. What it comes down to is that the new additions may take time to gel but they are surrounded by guys that can cover deficiencies quite well. Thorn’s opening remarks make it difficult to see his point of Dallas being second-best:
“The Cowboys have the three best OL in the league at their positions entering the 2017 season (LT Tyron Smith, C Travis Frederick, and RG Zack Martin) and as a whole were easily the best OL of the 2016 season. Each of these players are just 26-years-old, entering the prime of their careers. Having a single dominant player on the OL is rare in the NFL, let alone three, but Dallas has done an absolutely brilliant job acquiring each player through the draft, all first-round home runs.”
Nobody in the league plays their respective positions better than that of Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin. By that logic, they have three “dominant” players out of five that blow any combination of left tackle, center, and right guard in the NFL out of the water. That’s one huge advantage in their favor and in any case should end the argument right there.
There are a lot of strong offensive lines in this league but they are all following a blueprint set by Dallas. Since 2014, they’ve had their big three consistently getting All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors. There aren’t any teams that can say that, maybe two but not three. They’ve done this while remaining one of the youngest lines in the league (average age: 25.8). You won’t find an offensive line that is as consistent across the board than the Cowboys.
The NFL is certainly filled with good offensive line play but the Cowboys are showing us the difference between good and great. This Cowboys unit understands that they have to continuously prove their dominance. If the past few years are any indicator, it’s going to be a while before anyone’s ready to dethrone this bunch.