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Drafting a 1st-round lineman might be the only way the Cowboys can improve up front

Barring a reversal of the tides, Dallas has not seen success drafting linemen past the first round. Throw in the cap situation and that leaves little room to reconstruct the offensive line.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Washington Football Team Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The cycle begins anew. Less than ten years ago, the Dallas Cowboys had just drafted their third first-round offensive linemen in four years. Zack Martin, Travis Fredrick, and Tyron Smith would anchor one of the most dominant front fives in the league for years.

However, what 2021 proved is that the era of the Cowboys relying on their offensive line to win them games is officially over. The wheel of time has continued to turn, and Dallas must prioritize drafting a lineman in 2022. But if they don't do it in the first round, the front five is almost guaranteed to be a problem again next season.

Drafting a first-round lineman might be the only way the Cowboys can improve upfront

This is not a discussion of who the Cowboys should take at pick 24. Tyler Linderbaum, Kenyon Green, and Sean Rhyan are just a few names that Dallas might consider in the first round. The importance is that they select a lineman with the 24th overall pick.

Because while the Cowboys have excelled in finding first-round talent up front, with two likely Hall of Famers and one perennial Pro Bowler being their last three first-round linemen, the same success has not been duplicated past the first round.

Since 2000, there has been a clear divide between the Cowboys' first-round linemen and the linemen selected on day two, meaning rounds two and three. The parenthesis indicates the sample size:

  • First-round linemen (3): 120 average career games, 75 average approximate value, 8 All-Pros, 20 Pro Bowls
  • Day 2 linemen (9): 50 average career games, 18 average approximate value, 0 All-Pros, 5 Pro Bowls
  • Day 2 linemen excluding Andre Gurode (8): 36 average career games, 12 average approximate value, 0 All-Pros, 0 Pro Bowls

Now, Andre Gurode is the exception to this argument. But Dallas likely won't find a lineman in the second or third round that produces as Andre Gurode did. The Cowboys have selected nine Day 2 linemen since 2000, meaning the hit rate is 11.1% over that span.

More likely than not, if Dallas selects a Day 2 lineman, they will produce as a starter if need be, but they will not transform the line. The perfect example is Connor Williams, who they selected in the second round in 2018. Williams has been a serviceable starter but doesn't come close to the talent of Martin, Smith, or Fredricks.

In case you were curious, this is not limited to the second day. At the risk of stating the obvious, day three picks are even worse:

  • Day 3 linemen (14): 38 average career games, 9 average approximate value, 0 All-Pros, 0 Pro Bowls

Once again, there are starter-quality linemen selected past the third round, such as Tyler Biadasz, Doug Free, Sam Young, and Matt Lehr. But none of these players were a dominant force on the offensive line.

It is obviously possible to select a perennial Pro Bowler and game-changing lineman past the first round. Larry Allen, Steve Wisniewski, and Erik Williams were all Day 2 picks.

However, this is the exception rather than the rule, and notice how these names were all taken before 1995. Scouting departments are improving, and it is now much harder to miss an elite offensive lineman.

Dave Sturchio, Tony Catalina, and myself had DallasCowboys.com’s Kyle Youmans on 1st and 10 this week to discuss the draft among a variety of things. Make sure to subscribe to the Blogging The Boys podcast network so you don’t miss any of our shows! Apple devices can subscribe here and Spotify users can subscribe here.

Kyle Youmans discusses this in a podcast:

Usually, that second, third-round class of guys is not going to be as strong offensive line-wise; just because one, they are so rare coming out of college football, and two, it’s usually pretty easy to see who is going to make an impact.

There’s just these different positions that could be available [at pick 24]. I think it’s most likely to be offensive line, but if you don’t take one in the first round, you’re going to have trouble finding somebody to plug in as a starter immeditely.

- Kyle Youmans on the 1st and 10 podcast

This is confirmed by a study done by Bleacher Report, showing that by several metrics, offensive linemen are one of the safest positions to draft. Thus, if teams can find the elite talent in the first round, with relatively fewer misses than other positions, there's not a large talent pool to choose from in the second and third rounds.

This problem isn’t exclusive to the Cowboys or their drafting strategy. The reality is that it is more difficult to find a “hidden gem” offensive lineman in later rounds than it is for other positions due to the ease of scouting such a position. While it is possible to find late-round talent to build the offensive line, such a strategy should not be relied on.

This whole argument has ignored the fact that Dallas could add an anchor offensive linemen in free agency. But given that

  1. Dallas is $21 million over the cap, and
  2. Dallas doesn't like to spend in free agency (outside of player retention)

it is a safe assumption that players like Brandon Scherff, Terron Armstead, and Ryan Jensen will not be playing for the Cowboys next season.

Thus, if Dallas won't pay in free agency and any offensive linemen selected past the first round is unlikely to bring a difference-making skillset, the only remaining option is the first round.

Connor Williams will most likely be gone in free agency, Tyron Smith is aging and dealing with a constant stream of injuries, there are question marks about Tyler Biadasz's ceiling, and the Cowboys don't seem to trust La'el Collins. That is a lot of holes to fill on the offensive line in one draft alone.

Thus, maybe Dallas enters a period similar to 2011 to 2014 where they focus on the front five in the first round of consecutive drafts. It probably won't turn out as well as with Smith, Fredricks, and Martin, but it seems to be the only way the Cowboys will be able to protect Dak Prescott.

Here is the bottom line, if you are studying these prospects and doing mock drafts, keep in mind that a day two or three offensive linemen likely won't bring the impact you might hope. Some of these picks can be starters, and a few might even hit, but more likely than not, the difference makers will be found in the first round.

So, Dallas needs to look for a lineman at pick 24, whether it is Kenyon Green, Linderbaum, or one of the other names that draft experts will throw around. The wheel keeps on turning.