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2023 Cowboys roster breakdown: Offensive line

The Cowboys offensive line could be very good, but that is only if the health of certain players hold up for the season.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Dallas Cowboys Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Mike McCarthy is entering his fourth season as the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, but his first since taking over the offensive play-calling. Since coming to Dallas, McCarthy has led the Cowboys to consecutive 12-win seasons, but they’ve failed to reach the NFC Championship Game both years.

After getting a little more aggressive this offseason in an attempt to get over the hump, the Cowboys are hoping for a big 2023 season. In anticipation of that, let’s take an in-depth look at every position on the roster. Today, we’re looking at a position group the Cowboys have invested plenty of resources in over the last decade: the offensive line.

New coach Mike Solari brings changes to scheme and technique

The Cowboys have posted consecutive 12-win seasons but clearly were not content with the way things were going on offense. In addition to Kellen Moore’s departure, much of the offensive staff was shaken up too. The most notable change was longtime McCarthy disciple and right hand man Joe Philbin being swapped out for Mike Solari.

Solari brings a fairly distinct, though not radical, departure from Philbin in both demeanor and style. Both McCarthy and Zack Martin, in addition to some of Solari’s former players, have cited an edge in the coach that carries over to his offensive line. It has also been hinted at, and observed in OTA’s, that Solari is introducing some technical changes both with the way the Cowboys pass protect and the way they handle outside zone rushing concepts.

Solari has worked with McCarthy before, albeit very briefly, but he’s more notable for his collaboration with offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer when the two were with the Seahawks from 2018 to 2020. Now, the pair reunite in Dallas with McCarthy calling plays.

It’s often said that the chemistry between the coordinator and line coach is the most important coach-to-coach relationship, as both need to be on the same page to avoid any confusion within the scheme. Perhaps there were issues with Moore (very much a devotee of his Boise State style offense) and Philbin (decidedly an old school McCarthy man), but there shouldn’t be any concerns about that with McCarthy, Schottenheimer, and Solari.

Who starts at left guard?

This is the question that will likely feature prominently all throughout training camp. The sense after OTA’s was that, if everyone is at full health, Tyler Smith would be in line to start at left guard. That was the position he was initially drafted to play last year, with the left tackle role being his future. But the consistently inconsistent health of Tyron Smith changed those plans.

The elder Smith is healthy for now (quick, knock on some wood), and it makes sense to return him to his left tackle spot after some admirable yet inconsistent work at right tackle the last two months of the year. Besides, having the Smith’s play next to each other on the left side of the line sounds like a recipe for success.

The key here is Terence Steele, who is still recovering from a torn ACL. There has been talk about Steele moving over to left guard, which would likely kick Tyler Smith to left tackle and Tyron Smith back to right tackle. Of course, Steele isn’t even at full health yet, so he has yet to take any reps at left guard.

If he’s unable to play by Week 1, that prompts another question at right tackle that has a trickle down effect at left guard. Does Tyron Smith go to right tackle - thus moving Tyler Smith to left tackle, and asking either Chuma Edoga or Matt Farniok (or, shudders, Josh Ball) to play left guard - or will Matt Waletzko start at right tackle for the first NFL snaps of his career after spending all of last year on the injured reserve?

There are quite a lot of questions for Solari in his first season on the job. The Cowboys seem to know who their five best linemen are, but the tricky part is figuring out how to arrange them and, more importantly, what the contingencies are if/when injuries strike.

Terence Steele’s rehab process

As mentioned, Steele’s rehab process is a crucial part of figuring out the starters on the offensive line. The former undrafted free agent out of Texas Tech has blossomed into one of the top right tackles in the game, overcoming a an uneven rookie year in which Steele played way more snaps than he ever should have.

The Cowboys would love to have him back at full health in time to be ready for Week 1. While he has yet to fully participate in offseason workouts, the sense seems to be positive for Steele getting there in time. The bigger question is how much he’ll be affected in the long run by his injury.

ACL tears affect everyone differently, and for a variety of reasons. Steele was an ascending talent at right tackle, and his run blocking was a big part of that. Will the injury impact his ability to maintain leverage or work effectively blocking downfield? Such concerns might be what motivated the initial discussions of moving Steele inside, though it’s hard to know until we actually see him at full participation.

Tyler Smith’s next steps

There are plenty of good reasons to be excited about Tyler Smith after his impressive rookie year. Initially planning to spend the year at left guard, Smith was asked to switch back to left tackle just a few days before the season opener. While Smith wasn’t flawless, he took a step forward each week, and the Cowboys finished the season feeling extremely optimistic about his future.

For 2023, though, the question is what is best for his development moving forward. The team already viewed Smith as the future at left tackle, and he showed last year that the future may already be here. But if Smith needs to go back to left guard for the betterment of the line as a whole, could that stunt his growth? And would it be worth it to not roll out the best five players if it means setting Smith up for the most success by keeping him at left tackle?

Zack Martin’s contract status

Zack Martin has been the one real constant of this offensive line over the past decade or so, but that’s now threatening to change. Martin is reportedly considering a holdout after previously expressing a desire to restructure his contract.

When Martin last signed a contract, ahead of the 2018 season, he was the highest paid guard in football. Since then, Martin has been surpassed by seven different guards. Given Martin’s sustained dominance - he’s been a first team All-Pro and Pro Bowler all but one year since his last deal - it’s fair to ask for a salary bump more in line with his actual value.

With all the other questions on this offensive line, though, a potential Martin holdout just adds another layer of complexity to things. It’s hard enough figuring out who plays where at the three spots we’ve been discussing, but adding in contingency plans for Martin is certainly not something the team wants to be doing right now.

Can the depth be trusted?

On that note, depth has to be considered a question mark for this offensive line. McCarthy’s tenure in Dallas has yet to experience much continuity in the trenches, and the depth has been tested each year with varied results.

Matt Farniok saw extended time last year and the results were a mixed bag. Chuma Edoga is a veteran presence at this point, but he’s likely not somebody Dallas wants to be starting for too long. Matt Waletzko and Josh Ball are young and mostly unproven, but seem to have some confidence from the coaching staff.

Odds are good that at least one of those four will end up starting at some point this season. How confident do you feel about that? Training camp and preseason will offer more answers, of course, but the depth for this group isn’t necessarily exciting right now.

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