2017 was not exactly a failure for the Dallas Cowboys. Finishing with a record of 9-7, Dallas was able to get through some storms after injuries and an unfortunate six-game suspension to their most dynamic offensive player. But they were unable to get back to the promised land that is the playoffs, staying home to watch the rival Philadelphia Eagles win the Super Bowl.
On the offensive side of the football, the Cowboys took a big step back in 2017. And it all started upfront with their offensive line. After the 2016 season when the Cowboys finished 13-3 with a playoff loss to Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, Dallas’ unit in the trenches went through some turnover. Long-time right tackle Doug Free opted for retirement and reliable starter at left guard Ronald Leary signed with the Denver Broncos in free agency. That led to some question marks going into the 2017 season.
Dallas moved La’el Collins to right tackle, which led to a competition at the left guard spot for Jonathan Cooper and Chaz Green. As the season progressed, a variety of issues led to the group’s failure. Tyron Smith’s nagging back concern reached its peak, prompting him to sit out during a time when the Cowboys needed him the most. That time being at the start of the Ezekiel Elliott suspension. Chaz Green was ineffective as a replacement. Collins was inconsistent during the year, although he seemed to get better as the season wore on.
The Cowboys said at the start of the offseason that they wanted their offense to become more “Dak-friendly”. Dallas needed more productivity from their skill positions, but that was not entirely it. They also needed to get back to their identity of having strong offensive line play. To get back to being one of the best lines in football, the Cowboys signed both Marcus Martin and Cameron Fleming in free agency. Dallas also used a second-round pick on Texas’ Connor Williams.
A left tackle for the Longhorns, many saw Williams as a prototypical fit at guard in the NFL. At 6-foot-6, and roughly 300 pounds, Williams moves extremely well. He was able to stick with his defenders on islands in college. He shows natural athletic ability of moving laterally and getting upfield. His shorter arms, though, made him a better fit inside instead of out at tackle at the pro level.
Dallas’ offensive line features athletic specimens like Smith and Collins. Williams will be able to fall right in with that group. There were some issues with his tape from 2016 and 2017. MCL and PCL strains in his left knee led to him losing a step and become a bit weaker in terms of his core strength. However, his ability to play through it and still provide a productive impact speaks to his toughness and blue-collar attitude.
Williams fits nicely in a zone-blocking scheme because of his good feet and athleticism. He is a guy you can pull around the edge or send to the second-level. He has instincts and athleticism that could be a cornerstone for the Cowboys’ heavy zone-rushing attack.
With such quick feet, active hands, refined technique, and a hard-working attitude, it is clear why the Cowboys loved him. He provides a plug-and-play presence right away at the guard position and he also has the ability to slide over and play tackle in case of injury.
The tape on Williams shows a player who can do a variety of things for an NFL offensive line. Against skill or finesse pass rushers, Williams’ athleticism allows him to hold his own. Against bull rushers who rely on power, Williams has the ability to anchor his end and drive with his frame.
There really is not a big weakness in Williams’ game. Cowboys fans have already seen some of the freakishly-athletic things he can do. Some may argue that he is a little slim and needs to add on weight, but Williams’ frame is the mold NFL coaches are looking for now. Due to his athletic nature and refined technique, Williams should be able step in right away and be productive. And even if there are weaknesses, he will have Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick to his left and right to help him out.
There may be some competition in training camp considering how crowded the offensive line room is with new additions, both rookies and free agents, but the Cowboys invested a high Day 2 pick on Williams and they are going to count on him to grab the starting left guard postion.
Had the knee not been an issue, Williams would have likely been a first-round pick in the draft. Dallas has built their entire roster around the offensive line. With a guy like Williams, who can come in and be effective from the get-go, Dallas will be able to get back to being the elite offensive line that they should be.