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Three Cowboys who could be unexpected keys to the season

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Let’s give some love to the guys in the trenches.

Jacksonville Jaguars v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

There is a sense of optimism surrounding the Dallas Cowboys this offseason. Between a much needed remake of the coaching staff, a lot of very solid or better returning starters, and what is widely regarded as an extremely good crop of new talent, there is a lot to make us wish that training camp would get here already. But most of the excitement, such as the report from our own Dave Halprin about how Michael Gallup could be a difference maker, has been about the skill positions. This article is about those other guys, the big fellows in the trenches, who should inspire just as much optimism.

There is an old NFL adage about building the team from the inside out. The Cowboys have been excellent doing that on offense. High draft picks and significant contracts have created a line with a rather fearsome reputation, even though injuries and illness have hampered them the past couple of seasons. The other side, however, has been one that has seen spotty results, especially the DTs. Now, that has changed. Here are three players in those groups that could have major impact this year.

The returning veteran

While Jason Garrett’s legacy is mostly seen as one of under-performing teams, he did accomplish one thing that bore fruit, and that was the emphasis on acquiring high-quality offensive linemen. Three times during his tenure, the team invested a first-round pick there, and Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin all proved to be absolutely worth it. They also invested some other premium picks in Connor Williams and Connor McGovern.

But among the returning players, the greatest “value” of all was from an undrafted free agent. La’el Collins was the unfortunate victim of being mistakenly linked to a tragic event just before the 2015 NFL Draft. He was not selected by anyone. That allowed the Cowboys to target him after their own research cleared him of any involvement in the death of a former girlfriend. They moved faster than anyone else in getting him to Dallas for their sales pitch, and it was a powerful one led by Jerry Jones, one of the greatest closers in the league. Collins accepted their offer without entertaining any other suitors, and was subsequently rewarded with a couple of very nice contract extensions.

And the Cowboys were rewarded in turn, as Collins has quietly become one of the best right tackles in the business. It is arguable that he is now better than Smith, and is even giving Martin, one of the absolute best guards anywhere, a little competition for the top player on the line. Smith is still a great player, but increasingly has had to fight injury issues, missing three games in each of the last four seasons. Collins is fully capable of handling whoever is lined up at LDE.

That is a great thing to have with more and more teams deploying their best pass rusher on that side as opponents usually put their best tackle on the other side of the formation. We hope and expect Dallas to be more focused on the passing game under Mike McCarthy, and Collins makes that easier to do. And when they elect to run the ball, he is just as good clearing a path.

The free agent

While the team has kept some emphasis on the offensive line after Garrett’s departure (a bit more on that later), it had a big departure across the line of scrimmage. Defensive tackles were just not that big a priority under him and Rod Marinelli, with 2019’s Trysten Hill being the only premium draft pick while Garrett was in charge - and his performance was hardly impressive last season. Meanwhile, free agency during that stretch was strictly bargain shopping for interior defensive linemen. This year, DT was a major emphasis, with Gerald McCoy the first major free agent signing, and Neville Gallimore drafted in the third round. But the one that really signaled just how things had changed with Jim Tomsula’s input was nose tackle Dontari Poe.

He has eight years under his belt, and was available for a very affordable deal because his production declined a bit last season. But he is a true nose tackle on a team that has not had one in years. With good talent around him, including his old partner McCoy, the team hopes he can recover some of this ability to stop the run while being an asset in pass defense by pushing the pocket back to the quarterback.

We saw far too many times when a combination of lighter DTs plus Marinelli’s philosophy of defending the run on the way to the quarterback led to the Cowboys being gashed, often by relatively nondescript backs. Now Poe could be a vital piece in preventing that. If he is able to do so, the defense could be a lot more effective in getting off the field, while the reinstatement of Aldon Smith offers hope the pass rush will be fierce as well. And if Randy Gregory gets some good news soon, well, watch out.

The rookie

The Cowboys continued their use of picks to bolster the offensive line when they traded up to get the last pick of the fourth round, taking center Tyler Biadasz. Dallas had a hole there with the unfortunate retirement of Travis Frederick. They also have some questions to answer at left guard. Now, with incumbent LG Williams, McGovern, Joe Looney, and Biadasz, the team has more than one way to go in sorting out the two positions.

Biadasz was widely seen to be a first-round talent before his 2019 season at Wisconsin, but he was hampered by injury. That allowed him to fall in range for the Cowboys to grab. If he has recovered, his pedigree means he could be the starting center. He might not win the job to start the season, but he could well ascend to it before the year ends. The team clearly hopes he is the center of the future.

Dallas no longer has the consensus best line in football, but Biadasz could be a big help in getting them back into that conversation. If he does, those potent offensive weapons the team has accumulated should thrive.

Line play is often underappreciated in the stat obsessed NFL, but it truly is where the hard work gets done. Now the Cowboys could be much improved on both sides of the ball. These players won’t make many highlights. They just will allow them to happen.