The Dallas Cowboys’ 2020 season was wrecked by injuries. Dak Prescott was obviously the most significant, but the multiple injuries along the offensive line were almost as significant, and might have been enough to hold the team back even if Prescott had stayed healthy. Of the projected starters going into training camp, La’el Collins, Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, and Tyler Biadasz all finished the year on injured reserve, with the two tackles missing effectively the entire season. Only Connor Williams played in all sixteen games. While the five starters are all healthy and expected to be ready for the opening game of the season against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, finding good depth this year to keep the team competitive through the now seventeen game season is vital.
Unfortunately, the attempts to do that have not gone very well. While most of the focus has been on the experiment to make Williams the primary backup at center, the rest of the line depth is also far from being settled.
Using Williams at center so much led to speculation that the staff was thinking about putting him in as the starter and promoting Connor McGovern to Williams’ spot at left guard, but the preseason game against the Arizona Cardinals showed that was not really viable. The poor showing by Williams on the first two series and the marked improvement once Biadasz came in were convincing. Now many are calling for an end to the Williams experiment.
That may be a bit premature. While the final decision could well be to go anther direction, there are still two more preseason games as well as the practices back at the Star to give Williams work. He is having to learn the position from scratch and may show a significant leap forward.
Still, the staff has to be exploring other options. One that has flown under the radar is UDFA Braylon Jones. After both Williams and Biadasz left the game on Friday, he came in and got plenty of reps. Matt Farniok may be in that picture, too. In any case, it is worth noting that there were no bad snaps in the second half after Williams and Biadasz were done for the night, as well as the lone touchdown drive of Dallas’ preseason. While this was against the third and fourth string defenders for the Cardinals, just getting the snaps done without error is noteworthy. Jones may be a sleeper to make the roster if Williams does not improve enough.
McGovern is the only proven backup at guard, but Jones may also be able to contribute there in a pinch. Farniok could be in the mix as well despite seeming more likely destined for the practice squad. However, there is sense in just carrying one backup at center and one at guard to not eat up too many spaces on the 53-man roster. Because tackle depth is a whole other can of worms.
The Cowboys signed Ty Nsekhe to have some quality depth, but he was injured against Arizona. His performance to date has not been overly impressive, but he was off to a good start against the Cardinals before leaving the game. The team would like to keep him because of his extensive experience, which carries more weight with coaches than it does with fans. Terrence Steele increasingly looks like a lock to make the roster even if Nsekhe also is on the 53. That is especially true of Nsekhe is unable to go for a couple of games but will be available before long. Given how center and guard are a bit more interchangeable, and the bad memories from last season, Dallas most likely will carry two backup tackles and a total of nine offensive linemen.
If Nsekhe is not on the roster, that leaves a hole. There are two possible answers on the current roster. Brandon Knight started nine games last year during the offensive line turmoil, and he also has reportedly gotten some work at guard. He has had some poor reps so far in preseason though. That might open up the door for a real dark horse, Isaac Alarcón. The International Pathway player has seen a lot of work this preseason, also on the field for the entire second half versus the Cardinals. And like Knight, he has reportedly gotten some work at guard. Fourth-round pick Josh Ball has been injured, so as of right now there is no clear path for him to make the 53-man roster.
Those are the only likely options from within for Dallas. If the situation does not make the staff comfortable after the preseason is over, they will have to look outside as other teams make their final roster cuts. Some offensive line rich franchises may be forced to waive some good backup level talent, and the Cowboys have a nice position for waiver claims. Even if they are reasonably satisfied with what they have after their own cutdown to 53, they need to take a long hard look at any clear upgrades that become available. Even though an outside player might need a week or two to get up to speed, it would be easy to handle. The team always has at least one inactive offensive lineman each week, and that would allow them to buy a little time for someone to integrate into the offense.
What is clear is that outside of McGovern there are a lot of maybes for all the backup jobs. With only three and a half weeks until they start the season, time is getting short. Perhaps the final two preseason games will provide some clarity. Even if not, the staff needs to find good solutions to make sure an injury on the line does not cripple the team.