While we wait for training camp to get underway, we’re taking a look at all the position groups for the Dallas Cowboys, with the focus on whether the team was successful in improving during the offseason. You can find the links for the earlier parts of this series at the end of this one. Today, we are looking at a position group that underwent a serious downturn the past couple of seasons, the offensive line.
For several years, the offensive identity of the Cowboys was based on some truly dominant play by their line. 2014 and 2016 were both examples of just how well it could work. But in 2017, injuries took a severe toll, with the worst damage being done in the game against the Atlanta Falcons when Tyron Smith’s absence and no adequate backup tackles led to Dak Prescott getting beaten half to death. It was a game that arguably affected him so badly that it would linger into the next season. 2018 saw the illness of Travis Frederick keep him out for the season. The team at least had a much better fallback plan in Joe Looney, and had upgraded the swing tackle as well with Cameron Fleming, but when you take an All-Pro off the field you are bound to see a decline in performance. It is likely to be worse when you are plugging a rookie converted tackle in at left guard. And we certainly saw things go badly, with the Cowboys surrendering 56 sacks, second worst in the league.
In some ways, the Cowboys got to the playoffs despite their offensive line, a far cry from their previous two postseason appearances. Now the goal is to have a better line for this year.
Frederick is without question the big story. If he is able to return to the starting center job, and is at least close to what he was physically, this line is certainly going to be better. While the bearded one is a physically powerful and skilled player, his most valuable attribute is probably his understanding of defenses and his own team’s assignments. He calls protections for the line, which reduces and simplifies the load for his quarterback. It is a difficult factor to quantify, but it is real and important for Dallas. So far, all reports are that Frederick is on track to start the season. If he does, then the line is better just because of that.
The offensive line is another unit that is also affected by a coaching change, but in this case, the advent of Kellen Moore as offensive coordinator is probably less important than the promotion midseason of 2018 of Marc Colombo to replace the ousted Paul Alexander as line coach. The players seemed to respond well to the change, and it led to Colombo getting the job full time after the season. It is hard to know just what went wrong with Alexander (although there were some who saw it coming when he was hired), but something certainly did go awry. If Colombo can keep things on a better course, then it will help make this a better unit.
Tyron Smith is one of the elite tackles in the league - when he is healthy. He is now entering his ninth season, and there is an unavoidable wear and tear, especially for a position that sees fierce collisions with large, strong human beings on every single play. His health is important.
La’el Collins was one player in particular whose play seemed to show a definite uptick after Colombo took over coaching him. He is entering a contract year, so he has additional motivation to perform (although he is more than likely playing for a free agent contract with another team). It is not as certain to say right tackle will be better, but it doesn’t look like there is much risk of it declining.
That rookie left guard, Connor Williams, is back, and a full offseaon has made him bigger and stronger. Add in the experience he gained in starting 10 games and appearing in three more, and he should take a step forward.
Zack Martin was mostly his normal All-Pro self last season, although he did seem to be affected at times by some substandard play around him. Assuming Frederick’s return, he should be just as effective this year.
Looney did an admirable job filling in at center last season, but the team is much better off when he is just standing by. He does give them very good depth.
Fleming is adequate as a swing tackle, but you really can’t say he is good. Of course, there aren’t enough starting tackles to go around in the league, so we can’t complain too much.
A possible upgrade there may come from UDFA rookies Mitch Hyatt and Brandon Knight. The team seems especially high on Hyatt’s potential. They may try very hard to keep him on the 53, with Fleming’s contract up after this year (the team does have an option to keep him for 2020). It looks like the hope is that one of the newbies will allow them to move on.
Xavier Su’a-Filo also saw time on the field as a backup guard, mostly filling in when Williams was injured. His performance was not impressive, but he is still available.
He also has some serious competition this year in rookie Connor McGovern, who could be the future at left guard (under the theory that Williams will go back to tackle when Collins moves on). McGovern appears to be a definite upgrade to the talent pool.
The Cowboys also have Cody Wichmann, Adam Redmond, Larry Allen Jr., Jake Campos, and Derrick Puni on the roster, but all are extreme long shots to make the team. What they do offer is some hope that the preseason games will see some better offensive line play with the third string in than we are used to.
Line play is also one of the most difficult things to evaluate during OTAs and minicamp. Without pads and contact, you cannot tell how well the players really are doing. That just adds a layer of uncertainty to this bunch.
McGovern, Hyatt, and Knight look like some quality additions to this group, but the real determinant of whether this is now a better line than last season still comes down to Frederick. If his recovery is real, then things are much brighter. If not, any improvement could be marginal at best. And the health of the rest of the starters is also something that could throw a real spanner into the works.
The best case scenario is a good one. It is just not something we can depend on as much as the positions examined earlier. The verdict is going to have to wait for a bit. Improvement is something that we can have hope for, but we won’t know until the regular season if it is real.
Here are the links to the earlier parts of this series.