Even though we are over three months away from the initial 53-man roster to be named for the Dallas Cowboys, it is already a big focus, and will remain so until the Turk makes his final rounds. While many of the starters are no mystery, the defense will see some competitions. The real action is the depth players, where there is more uncertainty than most years. That is something that is particularly key for the offensive line. By the end of the painful 2020 season every starter there except iron man Connor Williams was expected to be a backup when that year’s camp started. In some cases, such as Terence Steele, it is most probable he would not have even made the roster if La’el Collins and Cameron Erving had been healthy to begin with.
While the health of quarterback Dak Prescott is clearly the most important factor in how successful the Cowboys offense will be this year, that of the offensive line is a close second. Depth is closely related. With all the obligatory caveats about how early things are and how limited the evidence, there are already some indications from the OTAs about how those might be coming together.
In a very good look at 20 things from the first open OTA session, Jon Machota of The Athletic buried his observations about the offensive line way down at number 19.
The first part is a general consensus that really doesn’t take much hard analysis to figure out.
In regards to the offensive line, even though (Zack) Martin wasn’t participating, the safe bet is that if the season started next week, the starting offensive line would be Tyron Smith at left tackle, Connor Williams at left guard, Tyler Biadasz at center, Martin at right guard and La’el Collins at right tackle.
If that quintet is indeed ready to go when the games start to count, then this should be a very good to excellent line. Additionally, it is hoped that they will all be lined up with the first team to start training camp to allow them to get Biadasz fully incorporated with the others, who have plenty of experience lining up together.
Something blatantly obvious to even the most casual observer is not intriguing. It is reassuring, but when we start trying to project a 53-man roster, it is just a part we can automatically fill in. Things get much more interesting when you look at how things were being handled down the roster.
Behind them, Connor McGovern can play all of the interior spots, but Brandon Knight was getting the first-team work at right guard with Martin out. Knight is also in the mix at backup offensive tackle with Ty Nsekhe, Josh Ball and Terence Steele. Seventh-round pick Matt Farniok got the bulk of his work at center on Tuesday.
Now there are some things to chew on. Knight was forced into starting at left tackle most of last season when Smith was lost to IR, so the conventional thinking would be that he was the primary competition for Ty Nsekhe as the swing tackle. Seeing him as the first option with Martin still working his way back from injury was surprising. Does that mean that McGovern’s job is shaky? The fact that rookie Farniok was doing most of the work at center is just another reason to wonder.
However, it may be more about one of the things that seems to have survived the transition from Jason Garrett to Mike McCarty as head coach. The Dallas brain-trust has long placed a lot of value on position flex. If anything, it may be even more pronounced on defense under Dan Quinn. That sometimes is not entirely a good thing to many of us. But on offensive line, it is a legitimate plus. With good flexibility among the backups, teams can carry just eight offensive linemen on the roster, freeing up spots for other needs.
That is why this may not be a bad thing for McGovern, as he may not have to prove his flexibility to the staff. If Knight is seen as able to be both a swing tackle and guard, he may be moving up as an option to keep. Farniok would provide an emergency tackle ability with his experience in playing every position on the line during college. That could mean that these three could be your line depth. By rolling with McGovern, Knight, and Farniok, the team would have at least two players able to fill each spot on the offensive line if needed. Working Farniok primarily at center in practice is wise. That position is harder to step into without causing a serious decline in overall line performance. It would still mean Knight was the primary swing tackle and McGovern the swing guard. But after last year, there is certainly reason to want to be able to handle multiple injuries at once. We certainly don’t want to see it. We didn’t last year, proving that the football gods don’t care a whit what we want.
Pressure might be on Nsekhe. Ball and Steele would also be in jeopardy, but one would likely be a priority practice squad signing. They could be called up in an emergency if Knight had to fill in for one of the presumptive starters. For those who point to Nsekhe’s veteran status, it is worth noting that he only would cause the team to incur half a million in dead money if released, while adding $1.25 million in space, per Over the Cap. There might also be some loyalty to Knight, in his third year with the Cowboys. While he had struggles when first pressed into service, he improved significantly by the end of the year. It is admittedly early, but we may be seeing hints that the team would have to carry nine offensive linemen for Nsekhe to stick.
That’s a lot of tea leaves being read, but that is what the offseason is about, isn’t it? While Prescott’s health and the various combinations on defense may have been drawing the most eyes, the importance of the offensive line makes these early indicators some of the more interesting to dive into.