The Cowboys OTA on Thursday was open to the media, and while Mike McCarthy introduced a slower pace than usual in an attempt to avoid fines from the NFL, there was still plenty to observe at The Star. Most notable was the way this offensive line looks right now, and what it appears to be trending towards.
At the end of last season, the Cowboys were left with considerable questions in the trenches. Joe Philbin was replaced by Mike Solari, while assistant offensive line coach Jeff Blasko moved to the running backs room. On top of that, it was unclear if Tyler Smith would continue to play at left tackle after a promising rookie year or move back to left guard - as was the initial plan for 2022 - with Tyron Smith returning. Then there was Terence Steele, who suffered a torn ACL near the end of the year.
Dallas has been relatively coy about their plans for the line, at least partially due to the presence of a new offensive line coach. But on Thursday, we were offered our first hints of what the Cowboys might be getting at.
Zack Martin didn’t participate in today’s OTAs, so the Cowboys’ first-team offensive line was as follows:— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) May 25, 2023
In addition to Zack Martin not participating, Steele was also kept off to the sidelines. While Martin’s case appeared to just be veteran rest, Steele was in full attendance but only took mental reps as he continues to ramp up in his return from injury.
That resulted in the elder Smith taking first team reps at right tackle, which is where he played all of last season. That’s because Smith returned from his injury, suffered in the preseason, the week after Steele went down with his own injury. However, it seems as if Smith’s return to the right tackle spot is about more than just Steele’s ongoing rehabilitation.
What is over/under on number of snaps Cowboys OL Tyler Smith plays at left guard in 2023? Sharps should be on under. Left tackle is focus. Matt Farniok and Chuma Edoga worked at left guard. Josh Ball, who added some bulk this offseason, worked for Zack Martin on right side.— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) May 25, 2023
It would surprise if a healthy Tyron Smith does not start at RT. Matt Waletzko rotated there behind him after being fully cleared this month from the shoulder surgery that sidelined him most of 2022. But if Cowboys are starting best five, that includes Terence Steele somewhere.— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) May 25, 2023
If Tyler Smith is focusing solely on playing left tackle, and Tyron Smith appears to be the odds-on favorite to start at right tackle, then that would seemingly leave one spot for Steele to start at: left guard. After all, nobody is replacing Martin unless he’s resting, and Tyler Biadasz is coming off his first Pro Bowl appearance.
This isn’t exactly shocking news, though, as Mike McCarthy soft floated the idea back in March. The suggestion was met with considerable backlash among fans at the time, especially considering Steele has almost exclusively played right tackle - he had six games at left tackle in 2021, but only because of injuries ahead of him - in the NFL. In college, Steele played all of nine snaps on the interior, and all nine snaps came at right guard.
Suffice to say that Steele would literally be learning a whole new position to play left guard, which would mark two years in a row that the Cowboys’ plan for their starting left guard involved asking someone with zero experience to play the position. Perhaps this has more to do with the prospect of depth along the offensive line, though.
With both Steele and Martin out on Thursday, Matt Farniok and Josh Ball were taking first team reps at guard, and Farniok alternated with free agent signing Chuma Edoga at left guard specifically. Farniok spent the first three games of last year as the primary left guard, and he posted the highest pressure rate allowed on the whole team. Ball is new to the guard position after putting on weight for the transition this offseason. And Edoga is new to the team and has yet to prove he’s starter material.
Put another way, the Cowboys’ five best linemen are (in no particular order) the Smiths, Biadasz, Martin, and Steele. But Tyron Smith is a sure bet to not play all 17 regular season games - he hasn’t played a full season since 2015 - so the Cowboys are now planning on that. So if he starts at right tackle, and Steele starts at left guard, then it’s an easy fix to put Steele back at his natural position if and when Smith misses some games. And in the meantime, the Cowboys can have a healthy competition between Edoga and Farniok as to who steps in at left guard when Steele goes back outside.
Of course, this all hinges on Steele being a good fit at a position he’s never played before. And we’re also very early into the offseason, so things remain very fluid. After all, Steele isn’t even a full participant in practice yet, so these things are far from set in stone. But it does offer a good idea of where the team is at least hoping things go in the coming months.