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Who are the five biggest Jenga pieces on the 2018 Dallas Cowboys?

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Who can the Cowboys least afford to live without?

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NFL: Dallas Cowboys Training Camp Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

We kicked off last July with a question that would pose great relevance throughout the then-upcoming Cowboys season... who is the biggest Jenga piece on the team?

If you’ve ever listened to the Dave Dameshek Football Program, then you’re likely familiar with Dave’s “Jenga Theory.”

The theory is based on the classic game of Jenga, where you try to remove rectangular pieces from a tower built of them without the structure toppling over. Typically in a game of Jenga, one ill-fated piece removal leads to the whole thing’s demise. The “Jenga Theory” poses the question as to who on each NFL team would be the block you removed that brought the whole team down.

At the time we were coming off of a season where the Cowboys had operated for an entire season without Sean Lee and for a stretch of time in 2016 without Tyron Smith. Both factored into our rankings which were somewhat close.

  • The Obvious Choices: Sean Lee, Dez Bryant
  • The Obvious Choices... If You’ve Been Paying Attention: Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick
  • The Clear Cut #1: Ezekiel Elliott
  • Honorable Mentions: Zack Martin, Jason Witten

Of these seven names two are now completely gone from the Cowboys and three important Jenga pieces were pulled out last season. Considering what we’ve learned, who the team has lost, and who they have added, who are the five pieces most crucial to the team’s structure this season?

By the way, regardless of your feelings on him, Dak Prescott is the team’s starting quarterback. This discussion is all non-quarterback positions because without him things change drastically.

The top three are obvious and non-negotiable

If 2017 taught us anything it was absolutely that Tyron Smith, Sean Lee, and Ezekiel Elliott are essential to the success of the Cowboys.

Part of this was because of the lack of depth behind them, speaking specifically to Smith and Lee. The Cowboys certainly missed Zeke during his absence, but they still had some success running the ball. Elliott is undoubtedly a player the Cowboys desperately need, but the reality is that his function isn’t as important as Smith’s or Lee’s to the overall collective.

The Cowboys responded to their tower tumbling down by hedging the fronts on Smith and Lee. Dallas brought in Cameron Fleming to serve as a viable swing tackle if Tyron does need a game off and they drafted Leighton Vander Esch to supplement their best defensive player in Sean Lee.

Dallas first played without Zeke when they traveled to Atlanta on November 12th last season. They were also playing without Tyron Smith, and Sean Lee left very early in the game. Some of the other Zeke-less games that the Cowboys played were also missing Tyron and Sean at points, but they had both Smith and Lee for the Zeke-less games at New York and Oakland. Both of those were wins even without Elliott, proving that the Cowboys can hang on without their top rusher as long as their premier left tackle and linebacker are available to them.

DeMarcus Lawrence is part of the discussion, as are Travis Frederick and Zack Martin

From a health standpoint, the least stable point on the Cowboys elite offensive line is Tyron Smith. We have (thankfully) yet to live in a world where Travis Frederick or Zack Martin miss any time due to injury (although Martin has had some scares).

Thanks to not knowing this hypothetical, we also don’t know exactly how much their absences would influence the overall offensive line. It stands to reason that missing them would have a similar impact to when Tyron has been gone, but again part of what was so glaring about Smith’s absence was the lack of preparedness the Cowboys had for it in terms of their toying around with Chaz Green’s position.

Dallas may very well be able to sustain absences from Frederick or Martin, but someone who they definitely can’t afford to lose now is DeMarcus Lawrence. Outside of Sean Lee, DLaw is the best player on the defense. He’s the only pass rusher who can be counted on week in and week out, his playing has become essential to the Cowboys having success on defense.

The Cowboys have some interesting defensive ends that all sort of feel like projects to a degree. Tyrone Crawford is what he is at this point, Taco Charlton is entering year two, and we can come up with at least one thing we like about the rest of the bunch. Lawrence has climbed into a new tier of worth with the Cowboys, it’s no wonder he’s getting paid $17M this season.

What say you, BTB? Who are the most critical pieces of success to the Cowboys this upcoming season? Who are the team’s most immovable Jenga pieces?