The year was 2017. The Dallas Cowboys were reigning divisional champs after coming off an impressive 13-3 season the previous year. Midway through the season the team was sitting with a 5-3 record and primed to make some noise. Unfortunately, things took a bad turn when their All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith injured his groin late in the game against the Kansas City Chiefs.
What happened next is hard to revisit for Cowboys fans, so we’ll keep this flashback to a minimum. Smith missed the next two games and was backed up by faulty replacement swing tackles Chaz Green and Byron Bell. Dak Prescott was sacked 12 times over those two games and the Cowboys lost by 20+ points in each of them. It was terrible.
Ever since the “Chaz debacle” (as it’s known in the Cowboys archives), the team has made a more concerted effort to have a more capable swing tackle on their roster. Those players have included Cam Flemming (2018 and 2019), Cameron Erving (2020), Ty Nsekhe (2021), and Jason Peters (2022). And it’s a good thing too because Smith has now missed time in seven straight seasons, sometimes for just a few games, but other times for most of the season. More recently, the team has fared well with Smith missing time as it hasn’t derailed their season as it did back in 2017.
Along the way, the Cowboys have taken a couple of huge steps in shoring up their tackle position long-term, starting with the surprise discovery of undrafted free agent Terence Steele in 2020. With La’el Collins missing the entire season with a hip injury, Steele was thrown into action right away. He has quickly developed into a strong tackle to the point where the team released Collins last offseason.
The next gem tackle that fell into their lap was last year’s first-round selection, Tyler Smith. The raw, but very talented tackle from Tulsa was perceived as a “reach” pick that the team was forced into because of their careless offseason maneuvers. As it turned out, Smith was one of the best players from last year's draft and now many of us feel confident about him being the team’s left tackle of the future.
Suddenly, with the younger tackles playing so well, the question has switched to what should the Cowboys do with all this depth. The front office just reconfigured Tyron’s contract with a much smaller base salary but also included verbiage that bumps his pay based on playing time. This is fantastic considering Smith’s chronic struggles to stay on the field. The Cowboys will now enter the 2023 season with all three of these tackles on the roster.
Last season, we got to see the two Smiths in action together after Steele was lost toward the end of the year. Tyron, who started his career at right tackle, returned from injury just in time to fill in on the right side. The veteran’s transition to RT ended up being just what the team needed.
With all these starting-caliber tackles, a new question has surfaced, who should play where? Last year’s success has added a new wrinkle into the equation and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has recently stated that the two Smiths will hold down the starting tackle positions while Steele becomes the team’s new swing tackle. Is that the right way to go?
We actually now have a sampling of each of these tackle combinations, albeit the Smith/Smith tandem consists of only four regular-season games. If we remove the 2020 season (which included an assortment of OL arrangements combined with Prescott missing most of the year), we have some numbers to work with.
While other factors go into rushing production and sack totals, we’re not going to gloss over the effectiveness of the Tyler Smith/Terence Steele split. Steele’s presence in the run game is undeniable and something we already knew, but the pass protection “weakness” that supposedly goes along with him isn’t as glaring as some might think.
The Cowboys would be wise to stick with the youngsters on the edge as they already have showcased their ability to play well and they’re only getting better. These two are the tackles of the future, so why not bypass all this OL shuffling and let them build on what they’re good at?
Additionally, Tyron’s fragility has limited his overall contribution and it seems more sensible to preserve his health and just keep him in their back pocket. That’s not to say that they shouldn’t put all three on the field at the same time when it gets down to crunch time and they want to have the strongest overall group, but just know, they’re rolling the dice every extra snap Tyron plays. So, if it comes down to which one should be the swing tackle, that role should go to the future Hall of Famer.