New season, new optimism. That’s usually the case around the NFL as teams prepare for another year of games. For the Dallas Cowboys, that holds true, and “new health” should be added on, especially for the offensive line.
The Cowboys suffered a barrage of injuries in 2020, but the offensive line was damaged more than most position groups as the team lost their three best players on the line for part, or all, of last season. La’el Collins missed all of the season, Tyron Smith missed all but two games, and Zack Martin missed the final month of the season. That’s a lot of talent sitting on the sidelines. They also had a back and forth affair at center with Tyler Biadasz and Joe Looney who were both nicked up at various times.
The Cowboys had built their reputation in recent times on having one of the best offensive lines in the game. The injuries and the retirement of Travis Frederick have put a dent in that reputation. Just how much of a dent?
Not as much as you might think if everyone returns to health in 2021. Pro Football Focus has the Cowboys with the sixth-best offensive line in football. That’s a little bit of a drop from the days when they battled for number one, but still a very solid showing.
The Cowboys finished just 27th in our final 2020 offensive line rankings, but that was due in large part to injuries. This unit looks much better on paper heading into 2021.
At left tackle, Tyron Smith returns after playing just 154 snaps last season. Between missed time and actual performance, Smith is clearly no longer a top-three left tackle with few holes in his game. The good news is that when he’s on the field, Smith is still a solid option, grading between 76.0 and 82.0 in his past three full seasons, it’s just a matter of staying healthy, as he hasn’t played a full campaign since 2015.
On the right side, La’el Collins returns after missing all of 2020 due to hip surgery. Collins broke out with an 86.4 overall grade in 2019, the fifth-best mark among tackles. He was outstanding in the run game, earning an 89.4 grade that ranked third, and he’s remained solid in pass protection throughout his career. If Collins is healthy, it’s a huge boost for Dallas’ prospects at the tackle position.
Zack Martin is as good as it gets at right guard, and he’s the second-best all-around guard in the league — behind only Indianapolis’ Quenton Nelson. Martin has graded out at 85.0 or better in all but one of his seven NFL seasons. Left guard Connor Williams finished with the No. 17 grade among guards last season (70.8). He’s improved in all three years of his career, and another step forward is not out of the question in 2021.
The biggest question mark on Dallas’ offensive line outside of health is at center, where the team has struggled without Travis Frederick in the fold. With Frederick now retired, Joe Looney and Tyler Biadasz both saw time last year, ranking 34th and 33rd, respectively, out of 37 qualifying centers in overall grade. Biadasz projects as the starter for 2021. He was an outstanding run blocker in college, so the Cowboys should expect improvement in that department in his second year in the league.
The one benefit to the 2020 disaster could be the experience that tackles Brandon Knight and Terrence Steele earned. Each graded among the league’s worst tackles, but they’re now depth pieces. The Cowboys also added a top backup tackle in 35-year old Ty Nsekhe.
Dallas should be much improved up front, though health and the center position remain question marks for 2021.
The fact that the Cowboys offensive line ended the season as the 27th-ranked unit in the NFL shows you just how bad things had gotten in 2020.
There are a few interesting notes from the PFF write up. One is that La’el Collins gets the recognition here that many Cowboys fans have been clamoring for. Collins has ascended to one of the best right tackles in the game, but at times it felt like only Cowboys fans were noticing.
Also noted is the improvement of Connor Williams. He has been a subject of much debate since he was drafted, but he has improved markedly since early on in his career and played solid football in 2020. If his improvement continues, and the rest of the line enjoys decent health, the Cowboys offense will be potent once again.
We discussed how the Dallas Cowboys offensive line looks entering Oxnard in the latest edition of our Training Camp preview series on the Blogging The Boys YouTube Channel. Make sure to subscribe to our channel (which you can do right here) so you don’t miss any of our videos!