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Two Dallas Cowboys make top 50 “trench” list

Time for some love for the big uglies.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles
You knew he was going to make it.
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

It is easy to find rankings for NFL skill players. Lately, those have been the subject of much discussion and even heated debate concerning how the Dallas Cowboys’ own have been perceived. But as with so many things, the guys who do the real dirty work each and every down don’t get nearly the attention. Those are the linemen on both sides of the ball, who endure violent collisions almost every play.

That’s why a recent ranking of the top 50 linemen in the game by Brandon Thorn is interesting. Given how hard it is to derive statistics for the big ones up front, his methodology is also worth noting.

This list was made based almost exclusively on my personal film study of the trenches. The idea behind the slots for each player is based on an assessment of their overall body of work until this point, coupled with a projection for expected performance in the 2021 season.

I considered their 2020 film as the number one criteria for the ranking as well as the prior year or more of film when possible to serve as additional indicators of future performance. As an example, this wasn’t possible for Bucs RT Tristan Wirfs since he was a rookie in 2020 but for Saints LT Terron Armstead prior seasons were a factor because track record is important when ordering players for their current and future value.

Keep in mind that the ‘tiers’ are more important than the actual ranking, so players inside each tier can be shifted around without much pushback from me.

That not only tells us something about the Cowboys who made his list. It also explains why things may be better than this would seem to indicate.

Along with the reasoning for that, here are the two from Dallas who made the cut.

(Elite tier, 2nd overall) Zack Martin - RG - Cowboys - Year 8 - 30-years old

Martin was forced to play right tackle for the Cowboys in three games last season including starting at the unfamiliar position twice before going down with a season-ending calf injury in his second start at right tackle in Week 12 against Washington. Along with a concussion that took him out for Week 7, Martin missed a total of six games in 2020, the most of his illustrious career (his prior high was two missed games in 2018).

Even with some chinks in his armor showing up last season for the first time in his career in terms of injuries and missed games, at 30-years old with his track record of excellent play and an unmatched skill-set, there are more reasons to believe he will recapture his stellar play than not.

There was only one player who received a higher ranking, and that was DT Aaron Donald, who gets the “unique” category all to himself. That not only recognizes just how great he is, it is also an admirable use of the word.

Martin’s return is part of the reason that hopes are up for the performance of Dallas’ offensive line. The other parts are named Tyron Smith, La’el Collins, and Tyler Biadasz, all of whom missed much or all of the season. This made them basically ineligible for this ranking. If all are indeed healthy, it could bode very well indeed, and had he not gone out himself Smith would probably have cracked this list somewhere since he received honorable mention at the end.

(Very good/trending down tier, 38th overall) DeMarcus Lawrence - Edge - Cowboys - Year 8 - 29-years old

Lawrence has been a bit mischaracterized over the last two seasons largely due to his sack numbers dipping. When you contrast his raw numbers from the 2019-2020 seasons (11.5 sacks) with his 2017-2018 seasons (25 sacks) it is understandable for people to think that he is no longer a dynamic, very good edge player, rather in the ‘good/above average’ tier. It’s important to understand the various changes that the Dallas defense has undergone during that timeframe relative to coaching changes that have impacted what Lawrence’s responsibilities are as a player. Lawrence has gradually been asked to focus more heavily on defending the run while seeing an inordinate amount of double-teams over the last couple of seasons. When isolated against top-tier competition at tackle, he is still on the shortlist for most respected by his opponents due to his vaunted cross-chop technique but also his spin move, effectiveness on stunts, and underrated power.

The defensive coaching changes are hopefully going to see Lawrence more involved in getting after the quarterback, and now those double teams may be a bit less prevalent with Randy Gregory poised to become his bookend player on passing downs. Likewise, the big infusion of interior defensive line players in the offseason will hopefully reduce the need to lean on Lawrence so much against the run.

These reasons are why this may be a rosier picture for Dallas than at first glance, although other teams may make similar arguments. Still, in a 32-team league, having two players in the top 50, and perhaps more in the top 40 based on the reasoning of the author, is a strong showing. We are looking for reasons to be optimistic about the Cowboys this year. Just add this one to the list.