Injuries are a critical factor for all NFL teams. Some are obviously more important than others, as the Dallas Cowboys found out when Dak Prescott was lost early in 2020 after severely injuring his ankle. That was like most injury situations, an unexpected event that could not be predicted. But the Cowboys have another key player on their roster for whom injury would not be a freak occurrence. Left tackle Tyron Smith seems destined to miss games at some point, and that is a big problem for the offense.
Left tackle is one of the most important positions in the NFL, given that almost all quarterbacks throw right handed, making the left their so-called blind side. Failure to have someone who can stop or at least slow down EDGE rushers coming from that side can lead to sacks, QB hits, and hurries, all of which degrade the ability to move the team in the passing game. For years, Smith has been one of the best in the league. He has been named to eight Pro Bowls and garnered two First-team All-Pro nods in his eleven year career. But the past six years have seen a disturbing trend of missing games. After missing only one game in his first five seasons, he missed three each year from 2016 through 2019. 2020 saw him missing all but two games. Last season, he was out for six, or a third of the season.
Many of his problems have involved back and neck issues. Things have already become uneasy for him as he missed the open OTA earlier this week with what was reported as tightness in his back. Some have minimized the importance of this since it is so early. As the longest tenured player on the team (only LS Jake McQuaide has as many years in the league, but most was outside of Dallas) he is logically going to get extra time off to allow him to rest and recover. But back problems are not like many injuries. Players recover from torn ACLs and go on to have little or no concerns with the knee thanks to the advanced care available. Backs are not like that.
As anyone who has had a back problem can attest, they keep coming back. While most of Smith’s recent missed games have been due to other, more manageable injuries, the early problem with his back is a worrisome sign. If it is strictly a muscular problem, it may not be a big concern. If it involves vertebrae, however, rest and therapy may not be sufficient. He has had a disc bulge in his back and injuries to his neck vertebrae. Those are things that linger and reoccur far too often.
There is also the overall toll wear and tear is taking on his body. His missed games last year were due to an ankle problem. After over a decade of battle in the trenches, those kinds of injuries become statistically more likely. While the latest concern was his back, he is also very much at risk of other damage.
It appears very likely that something is going to keep him off the field at some point in 2022. That will be a serious problem for the Cowboys. Not only does it affect the pass protection, it could derail the intent to revitalize the running game. Dallas would be forced to rely on a backup. Right now, that is a sketchy situation.
There is no clear swing tackle on the roster. The candidates for the job are second-year player Josh Ball, fifth-round rookie Matt Waletzko, journeyman tackle Aviante Collins who was on the Cowboys’ practice squad last season, International Program player Isaac Alarcon, and UDFA Amon Simon. The OTAs hinted that the team is looking hard at Waletzko as the primary backup for LT. There is a lot of work to be done with him. Ball would be the next most likely candidate. There also is a theory that rookie Tyler Smith could be used. Smith is slated to be the starting left guard, however. Moving him to left tackle would just open up a new problem. Connor McGovern would be next in line there, but the coordination would be difficult to get right with a double move.
None of this is Tyron Smith’s fault. He has been one of the best Left tackles in the NFL since he joined the Cowboys. Some might want to fault the ten-year deal he was signed to in 2014 (even though it was team-friendly) and the three subsequent restructures that have him still as the third highest cap hit on the roster. Given how well he has performed when healthy, that contract actually turned out to be something of a bargain in the long run. It is just a situation to be managed, and it can be. The problem is what to do when he is not available, something that seems to have very little “if” involved. The team elected to go with other concerns early in the draft. It makes sense given that Smith was going to be the starter as long as he is cleared to play. Waletzko is an attempt to find a player with the upside to someday fill in. Now the team is in a race against time just to have a viable backup at left tackle.
There is always a chance Smith makes it through the season without missing time or having any issues doing his job. Unfortunately, the odds are very long that will happen. What the staff comes up with for a fallback is going to be something to watch closely in training camp.