The degree to which the offensive line of the Dallas Cowboys was decimated last season was so laughable that it brought upon tears of hysteria. Each game seemed to bring with it a new lineup, and far too many times the team was making in-game personnel adjustments.
The line as a whole was hit pretty hard, but it was felt the most at the offensive tackle position. Fortunately, the team entered the new season with some added troops to the mix thanks to another round of free agency and priority free agent signings.
The Cowboys are expected to get healthier, but continue to reinforce this position group as they prepare for all types of outcomes. The draft has yet to come, but they have already taken steps to address the position in free agency with the signing of veteran Ty Nsekhe. What does this new signing mean for the depth chart? Let’s run down the position and see just how equipped the 2021 group is looking for the upcoming season.
When healthy, Tyron Smith is still a very good left tackle who can hold up against the best edge rushers in the league. Unfortunately, being healthy hasn’t been a regular thing for the 10-year veteran. The typical three games missed turned to 14 games last year, and as nice as it is when he’s on the field, that is no longer something the team has been able to count on. Smith is only 30 years old, but as a famous archaeologist looking for a lost ark once said, “it’s not the years, it’s the mileage.”
While Smith missing time was somewhat expected, the loss of the younger La’el Collins took us by surprise. Entering last year, he had only missed one game over the previous three seasons. However, last season he never made it on the field as a hip injury sidelined him for the year, delivering quite the blow to the bookends of the Cowboys offensive line.
Despite how bad things were last year, Stephen Jones has full confidence that these two will be good to go this season as he said the injuries that Smith and Collins had shouldn’t be a factor. He then put his money where his mouth is as both those guys had their contracts restructured this offseason to free up cap space for the upcoming season. That doesn’t guarantee anything in terms of health, but it does show you the faith the front office has in their availability.
After the Chaz Green/Byron Bell debacle of 2017, the Cowboys have done a great job addressing the swing tackle position in each of the last four offseasons. First, it was the signing of Cameron Fleming in 2018, who they re-upped in 2019. This essentially cost the Cowboys $2.4 million (2018) and $2.97 million (2019) just to give them some insurance on the edge. It’s a good thing too because Fleming started three games at left tackle in each of those seasons. The team let him go in free agency as he signed a one-year deal with the New York Giants for $3.5 million where he ended up starting all 16 games at right tackle.
The Cowboys replaced one Cameron with another as they signed Cam Erving to a one year $2.5 million deal last offseason. In a year that saw six different players fill in at tackle (five of which missed time due to injury) for the Cowboys, Erving came in handy starting in five games before succumbing to injury himself. He was rewarded with a two-year, $10 million deal with the Carolina Panthers. Being the swing tackle in Dallas has it’s advantages.
This offseason, they again went after a veteran swing tackle by signing Ty Nsekhe to a one-year, $1.75 million deal. Nsekhe has proven himself to be a very reliable tackle for many years, and while he’s no spring chicken at 35, he immediately lands as the team’s top reserve tackle on the roster. And considering the cost, that’s a very nice signing by the front office.
It’s nice to have the All-Pro right guard play at right guard, but desperate times called for desperate measures. After undrafted free agent Terence Steele continued to struggle securing the edge, the team finally moved Martin outside to help fortify the offensive line. And it shouldn’t be all that surprising that Martin was really good at tackle too. After all, he did play tackle at Notre Dame before transitioning into one of the best guards in the NFL.
While the odds of seeing Martin at tackle again this upcoming season isn’t great, we have to at least knowledge that he’s still one of the best tackles this team has on their roster and know that he’s an option if it comes to that.
Whether the Cowboys drafting a tackle early is perceived as wasteful or genius depends on the future health of their current starters. Regardless of perception, this team should come away with a new starting caliber tackle by the first two days of the draft. Not because of need per say, but just because of the great selection of talent. If they end up scoring a player like Penei Sewell or Rashawn Slater, then they’ll either have a talented player to fill in for another injury, or they can stack the deck should the veterans stay healthy. Imagine a starting offensive that looked like this...
LT Tyron Smith, LG Sewell/Slater, C Tyler Biadasz, RG Zack Martin, RT La’el Collins
Even if they don’t take one of the two studs with pick 10, there are going to be some very good players available on Day 2 as this draft class is rich at the tackle position. There are roughly eight starting caliber tackles ranked in the top 50 players from this draft, meaning there could be some great steals in rounds two and three for teams in the market for an offensive tackle.
As promising as UDFA Brandon Knight looked in his one start in 2019, it was was even more impressive to see him start nine games for the Cowboys last year. The youngster is certainly no Tyron Smith, but he held up pretty well. When a backup can come in and hold down the left tackle position, that’s huge.
While he was more comfortable on the left side, the team moved him over to the right side in the middle of the Cleveland game (Tyron played in that one) after Myles Garrett was abusing Steele for two sacks in the first half, with the second one leading to a fumble recovery for the Browns. After Knight replaced Steele, there were no more sacks from Garrett.
If the Cowboys return to better health, Knight could be a guy that gets lost in the mix, but his development is coming along nicely as he’s already proven himself viable in some challenging circumstances.
Like Knight before him, Steele was another UDFA roster surprise as the Cowboys had no interest in letting good tackles get away. And while Steele received the brunt of most of the criticism along the offensive line last season, at times he wasn’t all that bad.
If the Cowboys have to roll him out as as starter, it’s certainly going to be concerning for fans. But for a guy who is way down the depth chart, he’s not a bad player to have on your roster. And what’s to say he doesn’t show a nice jump in year two under offensive line coach Joe Philbin? In fact, the Cowboys have such good depth at tackle (especially if they draft another one) that Steele might make some nice trade fodder come roster cuts that could be used to help them strengthen another area of their roster.