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Why the Cowboys star trio of offensive linemen will be facing increasing pressure to perform

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It’s a new world for Cowboys’ fans.

Dallas Cowboys v San Francisco 49ers

Entering the 2017 season, the unquestioned strength of the Dallas Cowboys was the team’s powerful running game driven in large part by an All-World offensive line. The core of that unit is the team’s three first-round draft picks, Tyron Smith (2011), Travis Frederick (2013) and Zack Martin (2014).

Each of the three has been an elite performer since entering the NFL. This is true regardless of what metric you choose to measure them. Pro Football Reference uses “approximate value” as a simple, rudimentary grading metric. Approximate value (AV) is a counting metric, meaning the more a player plays the higher his potential number. So, assuming a player plays most of all of his team’s games we could define AV like this:

Here’s what the Cowboys’ big three offensive lineman have done in terms of AV:

Over sixteen combined season the lowest number is 8, the highest is 14 (both in 2014) and average is 11. This would be exceptional for a single player, but for three players on the same offensive line to generate such numbers is virtually unheard of in the NFL.

Not surprisingly, the trio have been recognized with numerous Pro Bowl and All Pro awards:

The three have combined for thirteen Pro Bowl bids and ten first- or second-team All-Pro awards. The Cowboys have effectively been fielding a Pro Bowl offensive line the last four seasons.

A core component of each player’s elite performance has been their health. They have combined to start 249 of a possible 256 regular season games (258 of 265 including playoffs).

That’s a staggering 97% attendance rate in a league where any one player playing every game in a single season is a significant accomplishment.

None of this is news to even casual Dallas fans; Smith, Frederick and Martin are rightly regarded as Cowboys’ royalty and embraced by all who follow The Star. That’s why recent events have left many fans uneasy.

First, Zack Martin suffered a knee injury in the team’s second preseason game against the Cincinnati Bengals. (Luckily the injury doesn’t seem to be serious and Martin is expected to start the team’s season opener September 9th.) That was followed by Travis Frederick being diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome. The auto-immune disease was probably unknown to the vast majority of Cowboys’ fans but all of us have become more familiar with it over the last week.

It seems unlikely Frederick will be playing NFL football soon and it’s possible he won’t play at all in 2018. Further, there’s a greater than zero chance the disease could effect his Dallas Cowboys’ career for the long-term.

All of this comes on the heels of a season when Tyron Smith missed three games due to back problems. This was the second consecutive season Smith missed multiple games after having missed only one game his first five years in the league.

In short, what was once a reliable assumption (elite performance along most of the offensive line) has suddenly become a question mark. While this makes many of us nervous about the team’s 2018 prospects, it also has potentially huge long-term consequences.

Each of the three players is under the age of 30 and in what should be the prime of their careers:

Tyron Smith: 28

Travis Frederick: 27

Zack Martin: 27

Further, elite offensive lineman frequently enjoy long careers, often playing into their mid-30’s with high quality performance. Thus the team’s decision to hand each of the three lucrative long-term contracts made perfect sense. In fact, locking up the three elite performers for the next six years provided the team’s long-term foundation and not many would argue with that strategy.

That calculation changes, however, if the three’s health becomes a question mark. Let’s look at how the three have performed and what they’ve consumed of the team’s salary cap:

The Cowboys’ have enjoyed the luxury of receiving elite performance during each of the three’s rookie contracts. Thus, historically they have not eaten up much of the team’s cap. Even last year, when both Frederick and Smith were on their second contract, the three only counted $16M against the team’s $167M salary cap (less than 10%).

This means the trio has historically been delivering enormous value on the team’s salary cap investments. Note the “AV/Cap hit” metric above. Anything more than a 1-to-1 ratio in terms of AV-to-millions of salary cap is a good value. The three have been providing 3.5 AV per million spent for the last seven years, which is outstanding.

Moving forward, however, those salary cap hits increase dramatically.

That $16M number from 2017 jumps to $30M in 2018 then around $40M for the next five years. That’s nearly 23% of the current $177M NFL salary cap. Another way of looking at it:

The best year for the trio was 2014 when they combined for 40 AV. They nearly matched it in 2016 with 39. Last season, Smith missed time (and was merely “good” as opposed to “dominant” when he did play) resulting in their AV dropping to 31.

That’s a disconcerting development when you look at the salary cap numbers moving forward. Unlike in the past, the Cowboys will be paying for elite performance moving forward. Thus, anything less than elite performance means the Cowboys aren’t getting the value they need to truly succeed.

The following chart puts the situation in stark terms:

This compares the AV generated by Smith, Frederick & Martin compared to their salary cap hits. In order for them to continue providing a healthy return on the team’s salary cap investment they must continue generating 30+ AV each year.

That seemed like a perfectly reasonable expectation up until a week ago. Suddenly, however, what was once an easy assumption is now a serious question mark.

Now, this could all look like needless hand-wringing as early as mid-season. Zack Martin’s injury doesn’t seem serious and shouldn’t have lingering effects; he’s more likely to continue being an elite NFL lineman for the foreseeable future than not. Tyron Smith has looked healthy in preseason and if he continues to play this way will regain his status as the “best left tackle in the league”. Frederick’s Guillain-Barre Syndrom diagnosis was made early and that’s apparently a key to full recovery. It’s not inconceivable all three could be back making life miserable for opposing defenses by November.

Nevertheless, the situation has changed and as Cowboys fans we face a new reality.