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Cowboys pass protection might be noticeable difference in Mike McCarthy’s offense

Are the Cowboys destined to take another offensive lineman in the first round?

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Dallas Cowboys Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time since 2019, the Dallas Cowboys have a new play-caller on offense, with head coach Mike McCarthy filling the void left by Kellen Moore moving to the Chargers. The first signs of what may change in the Cowboys offense under McCarthy will come later this month at the NFL draft, but it may be some time after that where any differences are noticeable on the field - with Dallas still focusing on reshuffling the offensive line.

Even when OTAs and minicamps begin, offensive line is a hard position to evaluate without pads on, but the Cowboys certainly added to their long track record of drafting plug-and-play starters up front just last year with Tyler Smith. Drafted initially as a left guard with position flex to tackle, Smith proved himself as a quality starter at left tackle when veteran Tyron Smith went down.

The Cowboys know they need to be prepared for Tyron Smith to miss games as long as he’s still on the roster, but his resilience to return to the lineup late in the year and play right tackle for the first time since his rookie season can’t be forgotten. With Smith providing depth at right tackle, the team can feel better about Terence Steele working his way back from ACL surgery, but with both players healthy they do need to make a decision on who gets the starting nod.

A potential starting lineup from left to right of Tyler Smith, Terence Steele/Matt Farniok, Tyler Biadasz, Zack Martin, and either/or of Steele and Tyron Smith leaves a weak spot at the very position the Cowboys thought they drafted for last year. Instead of this being a problem created through lack of preparation, it says more about how they might be changing their play up front in protecting franchise quarterback Dak Prescott.

By featuring Tony Pollard in the backfield, and elevating Peyton Hendershot and Jake Ferguson to bigger roles at tight end without Dalton Schultz, the Cowboys are giving Prescott more checkdown options to get the ball out of his hands quickly. This has always been when Prescott is at his best, and would start out as a strength in Moore’s offense early in the year before fading against expecting defenses in the biggest games late. Prescott being able to spread the ball around can’t be the end-all solution to keeping him upright though, and expecting both tackle spots to hold up in single pass protection could be much more common in McCarthy’s scheme.

The Cowboys saw Tyron Smith do this well in limited action at right tackle, which makes the idea of starting him with a trusted backup plan of Terence Steele enticing. Starting Tyron at his natural position of left tackle could be asking a lot of the 12-year veteran in pass protection against premier edge rushers, and require much more shuffling across the entire line in the event he gets injured.

Pass-block setting in a quick-passing offense, with short drops from the quarterback, requires tackles to engage quickly and rely less on their lower body strength to anchor against the defender. Tyron has made a Hall of Fame career out of doing exactly this at left tackle, throwing rushers to the ground off the snap with ease during his peak. Steele’s game is more of downhill power blocking, struggling at times with hand placement to deal with speed on the edge. The Cowboys absolutely still want to be committed to the ground game, where having both Tyron and Steele in the lineup has produced the best results, but doing so with Steele at guard is entirely unproven right now.

Prescott may still be great at avoiding the rush by escaping the pocket entirely, but struggles like all QBs do when edge rushers capture the corner quickly and make it hard to set his feet before climbing the pocket.

This is why the Cowboys are being linked to offensive line prospects like Steve Avila with the 26th overall pick, another guard with position flex to play center or tackle.

Mike McCarthy knows how critical this season is for the Cowboys, and is tied to their success on offense now more than ever as the play-caller. The fastest way for any season to be thrown off the rails is with poor offensive line play, something the Cowboys have learned in previous instances without Tyron Smith. The fact they can go into the draft already having a plan at both tackle spots with and without Tyron is massive, and sticking to a position they have such a success rate drafting to fill a potential left guard hole is a great way to help make McCarthy’s offense work out of the gate.

Wide receiver or even running back may be the flashier picks that make the more immediate impact, but reinforcing both the run game and protection scheme in front of Prescott can make all the difference if McCarthy’s offense truly helps the pass offense become more dynamic.

The last time the Cowboys drafted offensive line in the first round in consecutive years was 2013-14 with Travis Frederick and Zack Martin, which immediately started a stretch where both players made up the best offensive line in the league, dominating teams in the run game in the same way the Cowboys want to continue with Pollard.

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