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The evolution of the Cowboys offensive line and how they’re ready to dominate again

The Cowboys’ offensive line took a step back last season, but they now have the pieces to return to the top.

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NFL: New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys have been regarded as having one of the best offensive lines in football over the last several years. If they weren’t the very best during a given year, they were real close, and year after year they were always finishing near the top. But that wasn’t always the case.

Prior to Jason Garrett taking over as head coach, the offensive line was ranked ninth in the league according to Pro Football Focus. The group consisted of four starting offensive linemen who were 32 years old - Marc Colombo, Leonard Davis, Andre Gurode, and Kyle Kosier. They also had the sprightly 26-year-old Doug Free protecting Tony Romo’s blindside. How about that!

Over the next couple years, Garrett would start transforming the offensive line - out with the old, in with the new. It started in 2011 with Tyron Smith, who was the first ever offensive lineman to be selected in the first round of the draft under Jerry Jones. The transition was a slow one as players like Montrae Holland, Nate Livings, Phil Costa, and Ryan Cook all logged some time in the starting lineup over the next couple seasons. As one might expect, there were some growing pains.

Things took a turn for the better when the team drafted Travis Frederick in 2013, and then followed that up with the selection of Zack Martin in 2014. In a span of four drafts, the Cowboys selected three first-round offensive line who turned out to be All-Pros.

As soon as the trio of Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin all joined forces, the Cowboys offensive line dominated their opposition. In 2014 and 2015, all three of them played in every game and they finished with the highest PFF grade in the league for both of those seasons.

La’el Collins took over for Doug Free who retired, and the team plugged in different options at left guard each year. Other players shuffled along the line, but as long as Smith, Frederick, and Martin were there - the Cowboys offensive line was in great shape.

Smith started missing games in 2016, and has now missed exactly three games in each of the last three seasons. The team felt his absence in 2017 as backups such as Chaz Green and Bryon Bell turned out to be a disaster.

Entering last season, many were very optimistic about the improvements made to the offensive line. Connor Williams seemed like a nice second-round steal who took over the starting left guard spot. They even signed free agent Cameron Fleming to be the team’s new swing tackle. Unfortunately, the offensive line got hit hard with injuries. All three of the All-Pros missed action, including losing Frederick for the entire season. Despite a noble effort by the reserves, the absence of their star linemen was certainly felt as the Cowboys’ unit dropped to 14th in the rankings.

In hindsight, maybe things weren’t as great as we all thought, especially when it came to their depth. The Cowboys were searching for anyone they could to fill out their roster, and it turned out to be a pretty big chore. Let’s revisit this O-Line shuffle starting with the players they had practicing in training camp.

The loss of Frederick pushed Looney into the starting center position and that put a huge damper on things right out of the gate. But things went from bad to worse as their depth started dropping like flies.

Free agent acquisition Marcus Martin (third round, 49ers 2014) suffered a torn ligament in his toe during the team’s first preseason game and was placed on IR before the season even started. Chaz Green (third round, Cowboys 2015) struggled keeping himself hydrated and missed several practices due to cramping. To the surprise of no one, Green didn’t make the 53-man roster.

None of the undrafted free agents they had on the roster showed enough to earn a spot. Damien Mama (UDFA, Chiefs 2017), Dustin Stanton (UDFA, Bengals 2017), and Jake Campos (UDFA, Cowboys 2018) didn’t make the final roster. Mama did manage to earn a starting job with Mike Martz’ AAF team, the San Diego Fleet, before it disbanded. Stanton was signed to a futures contract this offseason, but was released after the team drafted Connor McGovern and signed a new crop of undrafted free agent offensive linemen (Mitch Hyatt, Brandon Knight, Larry Allen Jr., and Derrick Puni). Campos was signed to the practice squad and he’s still around. With none of these guys panning out, the Cowboys were forced to take other measures to find viable backups.

As their OL options slowly dwindled, the team felt compelled to trade away some of their cornerback depth when they shipped Charvarius Ward to Kansas City in exchange for Parker Ehinger (fourth-round pick in 2016). The Cowboys also signed Adam Redmond (UDFA, Colts 2016), who was released by the Buffalo Bills at final roster cuts.

Before the Cowboys second regular season game against the New York Giants, the team made some roster moves. Kadeem Edwards (fifth round, Buccaneers 2014) was released. The Parker Ehinger experiment was short-lived as he suffered a knee injury right away and was placed on injured reserve. The team then signed Xavier Su’a-Filo (second round, Texans 2014) to round out their depth.

Of all the backups the team had trying to earn a spot on the team, only Cam Fleming remained as Su’a-Filo and Redmond were added after final roster cuts. And it’s a good thing the team kept churning to find suitable bench guys because all three of them were thrown into action. If you count Looney replacing Frederick, the Cowboys had four different offensive line backups seeing playing time last season:

  • Joe Looney, 16 games started, 1076 snaps (100%) - most by any player
  • Xavier Su’a-Filo, eight games started, 494 snaps (46%)
  • Cam Fleming, three games started, 232 snaps (22%)
  • Adam Redmond, no starts, 96 snaps (9%)

Redmond got most of his snaps in the Cowboys 23-0 loss to the Indianapolis Colts after Martin got hurt.

When you think about it, what happened last year was a little scary. The team endured so many injuries and the guys mostly filling in weren’t even on the roster this time last season. The good news is the team looks to be in much better shape this season. The return of Travis Frederick is a big part of that. He now moves back into the starting lineup, sliding Looney into the backup center role. Not only that, but Connor Williams should be better in year two, so the team’s starting unit looks much stronger than they did a year ago.

But more than that, the team is more stacked with their depth. The Cowboys caught a nice break when Connor McGovern fell into their laps in the third round of April’s draft. Some think he could challenge for a starting spot, but at the very least, he’s going to provide a nice addition to the bench. And players who were asked to start last year are moved to the bench and are now fighting just to hold down a roster spot. The Cowboys got a good look at Redmond and Campos last season, and if you add some of the new undrafted free agents like Mitch Hyatt and Brandon Knight - even one of the third-stringers might impress his way onto the roster. Check out the team’s depth entering training camp this season.

When you look at Dak Prescott’s 56 sacks (second-most last year) or the team’s 14th ranked yards per attempt running attack despite having the league’s leading rusher in Ezekiel Elliott, that doesn’t paint a flattering picture. And a big reason for that was deficiencies along the offensive line. It wasn’t so bad that the team wasn’t able to overcome it to still win the division and make the playoffs, but it still hindered the offense quite a bit.

Hopefully, the Cowboys improvements this season will help them work out some of their issues from a year ago. Better protection, a better running game, and more efficiency in the red zone will definitely help. With this much deeper cast of characters along the offensive line, you have to like their chances.

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