Would you believe that is how many games that the Dallas Cowboys starting tackles Tyron Smith and La’el Collins have missed over the past two seasons. Yikes!
Over the past two seasons...— Dan Rogers (@DannyPhantom24) July 24, 2022
Tyron Smith missed 20 total games
La'el Collins missed 21 total games
In two years' worth of games, the Cowboys starting tackles have been out of action for 2/3 of it. Does that worry you at all?
The Cowboys have endured some huge losses at the tackle position in recent years, which is why they’ve worked hard to shore up their depth. Last year, the team started the season with free agent Ty Nsekhe, the much improved Terence Steele, and even Brandon Knight rounding out the depth chart (Knight was released and signed to the practice squad in October).
But now, things are quite different. Nsekhe was only on a one-year deal so he’s not around anymore, but the big story was the release of veteran starter La’el Collins. Suddenly, the depth at the tackle position has been depleted. In fact, the only reserve tackle on the Cowboys roster who has played in the NFL is Aviante Collins, a practice squad player from a year ago. Collins is an UDFA from the Minnesota Vikings back in 2017 who has just one NFL start and has played sparingly across five games in 2017 and 2019.
On paper, this looks like a scary situation. Fans don’t have to go too far to remember the Chaz Green debacle that left the Cowboys' tackle position in dire straits in 2017. Surely, they don’t want to go through that whole mess again.
Why would the Cowboys just let Collins go like that and leave the team with so little depth? Eliminating his $10 million base salary helps the cap, but is it worth it to take away the added insurance he provides? And some will point out that Collins fell out of favor with the coaching staff and created trust issues where the team just didn’t want that type of aura in the locker room. That’s understandable, but again, is it worth leaving a huge hole at the swing tackle position?
The way we see it, the Cowboys organization is either:
- Completely oblivious to the dangers of running lean at the tackle position
- Super cheap and will cut costs even if it means playing with fire
- Have an overwhelming belief in the guys they have on the roster
The only option that makes sense is no. 3, but then the question begs, what are they seeing that we aren’t? The depth at the swing tackle position consists of second-year player Josh Ball, rookie Matt Waletzko, and the before-mentioned Aviante Collins. Is that really what they want to go with for the 2022 season?
The answer is yes.
The Cowboys have made their bed. This is who they’re taking to the dance and you better believe they’re prepared to cut a rug with them. What we don’t know exactly is what they think of each of these players that gives them this heightened sense of confidence. Hopefully, training camp will provide some answers, but before we get there, we wanted to attempt to climb in the minds of the Cowboys front office and explain why they are ready to roll with these youngsters.
They only need one of these three players to be ready
It’s easy to forget about the talent of Ball for a couple of reasons. First off, he was selected in the fourth round, so those guys don’t come with big expectations. However, part of the reason he fell that far was due to character concerns stemming from domestic violence allegations. From a talent perspective, he still entered the league with upside because of his agility for a guy that size. Ball has some technical flaws, but the athletic ability to bend and keep those feet moving help keep this big boy upright.
The other reason he’s forgotten about is that he spent his entire rookie season on injured reserve with a bad ankle. He’s had a full year with the team’s coaching staff so while he hasn’t had the benefit of NFL reps, the opportunities for mental growth have been there. Regardless, we never got to see what he could do last year so he remains a great unknown.
Imagine a bigger, faster, more character-friendly player than Ball and that is what the Cowboys have with the rookie Waletzko. Similar to Ball, there’s some development needed, so it’s hard to expect much right away. Of course, the same could be said about 2020 undrafted free agent Terence Steele, but that didn’t stop him from stepping up immediately. Steele was thrown to the wolves as the team’s starting right tackle due to need, and while he had his own issues, what he was able to do as a rookie was admirable.
Who’s to say that these coaches can’t do similar things with Waletzko. The rookie will need to improve his overall strength, but his athleticism and intelligence brings added upside. It’s just a matter of time before he’s contributing.
The Tulsa tackle is expected to start his career as the team’s new starting left guard, but eventually down the road could be the successor at left tackle to Tyron Smith. While it might not be the team’s favorite option, resorting to utilizing him at tackle could happen sooner versus later if the right circumstances arise. That would entail neither Ball or Waletzko being ready, Smith coming along very well, and backup guard Connor McGovern holding down the fort at left guard.
Again, this isn’t the ideal scenario and it may not even be one that is doable as Smith himself has a lot of work to get to where he can be a quality offensive lineman at the NFL level. Of course, once he gets it could be fantastic as he has the athletic gifts to be something special.
They have some valuable position flexibility
He can play both the left and right tackle positions as he’s already proved that last year. While he’s already the team’s starting right tackle, just knowing he can do both is some valuable position flexibility.
What does this all mean?
Right now, the battle for the swing tackle spot is primarily between Ball and Waletzko. Both have strengths on one side but not so much on the other. Because of Steele’s position flex, the Cowboys would be able to cover Tyron Smith missing time as long as one of them, Ball or Waletzko, is ready to go.
It becomes a little trickier if Steele is the one who is injured. The team would still be okay if Waletzko was the youngster who was ready, but would find themselves in a pinch if he’s not. Tyler Smith could be an option if they deem he’s ready, but changing too many moving parts always comes with challenges.
We most certainly could see a scenario where the Cowboys are in bad shape at the tackle position should the injury bug hit, but there are also some different scenarios where they’d be okay. It’s going to come down to at least one of these guys being ready and that doesn’t seem too far-fetched. Camp should provide some answers, and while we don’t know who exactly will step up, it should feel a little more comforting knowing there are multiple paths for the team’s swing tackle position to be in good shape.