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Unsettling questions about the Cowboys offensive line

Mel Kiper’s latest mock makes you wonder about what he’s heard.

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Divisional Round - Dallas Cowboys v Los Angeles Rams
It’s what we don’t know that is worrisome.
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The draft talk surrounding the Dallas Cowboys has been largely all about the defense. That side of the ball struggled all season. So did the offense, but there is an assumption that the return of so many players from injury will take care of things on that side of the ball. However, Mel Kiper’s mock draft at ESPN projects that the Cowboys will use their tenth overall pick to take Rashawn Slater, an offensive lineman seen as able to play both tackle spots or move inside to guard. That is just one man’s opinion in a mock draft, but it raises a disturbing question: Is there something we don’t know about the health of the offensive line players that were on IR by the end of last year?

Those players are LT Tyron Smith, RT La’el Collins, and RG Zack Martin. Smith and Martin are All-Pros, and Collins was seen as a rising talent. They were expected to be the anchors for the offensive line, but Collins never played a snap, Smith was hurt in the second game of the season, and Martin was lost in game 10. There is little reason to worry about the ability of all three, but there is definitely cause for concern about their health.

The Cowboys are not exactly forthcoming about injury details, and we really don’t know much about the recovery of any of the three. However, well-established analysts like Kiper have sources throughout the league, and sometimes know things that don’t get out to the general public. He is not going to reveal too much, either, because he wants to keep those channels to teams open and productive. That doesn’t mean that he has any special knowledge about the Dallas players, or that anything he has heard is correct. This may just be his read on the situation from afar. In any case, it is something that should make us question our assumptions about the shape the roster is in, and consider just what might need to be done.

Of the three lost starters, Collins has always been the most troubling, because his issues were there from the earliest days of training camp. Further, there were indications that his problem was both a hip and a groin issue, which can linger and become chronic. Soft tissue problems can be the hardest to fix and rehabilitate, as well as very difficult to prevent from reoccurring. The medical staff may not be sure that Collins can return this year. Perhaps even more concerning was that he reported badly overweight, which may have more to do with being put on IR than we realize. That speaks to potentially huge issues that need to be resolved.

Smith just faces the undefeated Father Time. With a decade of play in the trenches, the battering is catching up to him, and he has missed games in each of the last four seasons. Last year was obviously the worst, but it was becoming almost expected that he would miss three games during the year at a minimum. He may not be recovering as well as hoped. And for him, retirement is an option after being well compensated for many years.

Martin is the one that inspires the most hope he will be back. His injury was the first of his career, and it was not a mystery issue like Collins’. It was a soft tissue problem with his calf, but that is generally something that can be healed. There is some reason to believe he was not brought back late in the season as a precautionary move in a year that had been lost by that point.

Each one could still be an issue for Dallas, and even if all three are back this season, there is logic in the team looking to get a high-quality replacement on the roster now rather than wait. The hope is certainly that they will not be drafting so high next year. If they are committed to shoring up the offensive line, especially at tackle, a top ten pick is a very good investment. Outside of quarterback, it is perhaps the most valuable position on the team. History clearly shows that the Cowboys are quite willing to spend a high pick on the line, and the guys making that call are still the same as when Smith, Martin, and Travis Frederick were drafted.

The nightmare situation is if both Smith and Collins are not ready to go this year. That might possibly lead to moving Martin out to tackle permanently. When he was last season as the line was constantly reshuffled due to injuries, he was as good as he has been during his stellar career at guard. That would still leave a position to fill.

While drafting an offensive lineman would make tremendous sense, this could also be a situation where the Cowboys look to free agency. Good tackles are expensive, but with post June 1 cuts, they can actually pay for one if Smith and Collins have to be released due to injury, or if one or both should retire. Smith would represent a gain of $10.5 million in cap space, while Collins would net $8.55 million. That is nearly enough to acquire even the highest projected free agent offensive tackle according to PFF’s top 100, Trent Williams. He would be expected to command $20 million a year. Other top options include Taylor Moton at $16.5 million annually, and Russell Okung at about the same. Just one release by Dallas would go a long way to offsetting the cap expenditure needed to acquire one of them. The Cowboys might also consider getting a top level guard to allow Martin to move outside permanently. They could then still use that first-round pick to provide long-term security for the line, and also have other premium picks as ammunition for the multiple remaining holes to fill.

The defense still requires a lot of attention, but as we saw last season, an offensive player can still be a tremendous help for the team. They can still use other premium picks to shore up the defense. Using one to get some new talent on the offensive line makes sense given all the possible factors. Additionally, the identity of the Cowboys is expected to be relying on the offense under Mike McCarthy and Kellen Moore. Key to that is the health of Dak Prescott. Unlike with the linemen, there have been multiple reports that his recovery is going very well, and once the team gets his contract sorted, that is not expected to be a concern. Keeping him healthy will require quality players in the trenches. It’s one more reason why we should not be at all surprised to see offensive linemen a much bigger priority this offseason than many expected.