With the Dallas Cowboys, it always seems like there is a search going on for the new triplets. Ever since Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin popularized the concept for the Cowboys in their 90s dynasty run, it’s been a past-time of Cowboys fans to fine the new set. The newest contenders are Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott and Amari Cooper.
But maybe we were looking in the wrong place. Maybe we had the triplets all along, they just played along the offensive line. If there has been one thing the Cowboys have been known for since 2014, when Zack Martin was drafted, it is a killer offensive line. Martin’s selection in that draft solidified that offensive line and created the trio of Martin, Travis Fredrick (2013) and Tyron Smith (2011).
With those three in the lineup, the Cowboys were always going to be good up front. Unfortunately, we now have to find out what life will be like without one of them, Travis Frederick. But that stretch from 2014 through 2019 was a master class in offensive line play. Yesterday we noted that Martin was #51 on PFF’s Top 101 players from the 2010s. Today, his compatriots complete the trio.
43. T TYRON SMITH
One of the most talented offensive linemen of all time, Tyron Smith has battled through injuries and still ended up as one of the best players of the decade. His peak play was as good as that of any tackle in NFL history. His 2015 regular season grade of 95.0 is the best single-season mark we have ever given to a tackle, and even though he suffered a number of injuries over the second half of the decade, he has never graded below 75.0 overall. Tyron Smith is the player every young offensive lineman wishes he could be — he has been one of the best players of the past decade in the trenches.
Tyron Smith represented a change in philosophy for the Cowboys as they decided to use prime draft resources to build an offensive line. The Cowboys chose Smith at #9 in 2011 over players like J.J. Watt, Robert Quinn and Ryan Kerrigan. As noted by PFF, for the first half of his career, there was no one better than Smith at the money position of left tackle.
Smith is blessed with incredible athleticism and strength; he handles speed rushers, power rushers, and technicians with equal aplomb. Smith was First Team All-Pro in 2014 and 2016, and has made the Pro Bowl every year since 2013. But, injuries have started to take their toll, specifically his back issues. For four years in a row he has missed three games a year, and that means the Cowboys need a decent swing tackle or what happened in Atlanta in 2017 could happen again. (BTW, Adrian Clayborn was drafted #20 in that same 2011 draft).
Smith was the foundation piece of the o-line triplets, and he is still manning his post.
34. C TRAVIS FREDERICK
It’s a shame that illness curtailed a career that was trending towards being one of the greatest in NFL history. Frederick hit the ground running as a pro and graded above 85.0 for the first five seasons of his career before Guillain-Barre syndrome forced him to miss the entirety of the 2018 season. He returned in 2019 and played the whole season, but he wasn’t the same player (though he was still very solid), so he chose to walk away. Even five years of Frederick’s best play is enough to see him rank among the best players of the past decade.
It’s interesting that PFF ranks Fredrick higher than both Smith and Martin, even though he is generally thought of as the third in that trio. For five years, Frederick was the rock in the middle of the Cowboys line, and was the QB of the line as he called the blocking assignments. From 2013 to 2017, he was a good as it got at the center position, making four Pro Bowls and one First Team All-Pro.
Then came 2018 and the mysterious Guillain-Barre Syndrome. Frederick lost a year of football, and when he returned in 2019 he still made the Pro Bowl, but wasn’t the same player. In his retirement statement he noted that he could no longer player up to his previous standards so it was time to move on. It’s a shame, if not for the illness, Frederick stood a chance of going down among the greats at center like Mike Webster, Jim Otto, Dwight Stephenson, and Dermontti Dawson.