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Why the Cowboys’ backup offensive line issues aren’t that serious

Take a deep breath as we break down why the Cowboys depth on the offensive line is not a bad as you think.

NFL: Preseason-Jacksonville Jaguars at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys offensive line has earned plenty of discussion this offseason. First, there was the status of Terence Steele, who was recovering from a torn ACL in Week 14 last year. Then, there was speculation on who would play where, with rumors about Steele moving to left guard. And then Zack Martin’s contract holdout added one more layer of intrigue to the group.

But Steele showed up for training camp ready to go. Tyler Smith has played exclusively at left guard, with Tyron Smith at left tackle, since camp began. And Martin got a restructured deal that pays him a more respectable rate.

There is still plenty to figure out, though. There are two new coaches in the offensive line room, as Mike Solari has replaced Joe Philbin while up-and-comer Ramon Chinyoung has come in as the new assistant offensive line coach with Jeff Blasko leaving that role to become the new running backs coach and run game coordinator. Solari has brought with him a scheme change for his new linemen, but that’s not all.

While the five starters have not played a single down of preseason football, depth has been the hot topic, and for good reason. The Cowboys have started 26 different offensive line combinations in the three seasons (50 regular season games) Mike McCarthy has been the head coach. Tyron Smith, in particular, hasn’t played a full season since 2015.

Odds are good that the Cowboys will be forced to rely on their offensive line depth at some point this year, which is why the team has put such an emphasis on getting their backups plenty of work in the preseason. To put things nicely, though, it hasn’t quite gone according to plan.

Chuma Edoga, a versatile journeyman, was brought in as a free agent to be the team’s primary backup option. But Edoga struggled early in camp before hyperextending his knee, an injury that has caused him to miss both preseason games and likely will keep him out of the third game as well. Two other linemen that Dallas was counting on to take the next step - tackle Matt Waletzko and center/guard Matt Farniok - are tied for the most pressures allowed on the team through the preseason.

Even Brock Hoffman, who entered camp with low expectations but quickly worked his way up the totem pole, lost all momentum with a really bad performance against the Seahawks. There is exactly one Cowboys linemen that Pro Football Focus has awarded a pass blocking grade higher than 65, and that’s undrafted rookie T.J Bass. Ranking seventh on the team in pass blocking reps, Bass is the only one to not allow a pressure in the preseason.

However, it’s not time to hit the panic button. Not by a long shot. One of the primary determining factors in an offensive line’s performance as a whole is the chemistry between the five players. That’s doubly true for the Cowboys as they switch to a slide protection scheme in pass protection. You need your starting five to be on the same page, and the Cowboys feel good about their starting five.

The backups have looked bad in the preseason, yes, but that’s five backups all playing together. It would take a catastrophic turn for the Cowboys to actually play all five of those guys at the same time during the regular season. More than anything, Dallas needs one or two players they can count on to join four other starters for a handful of games without throwing off the entire line’s groove.

In reality, these preseason reps are mostly just about getting these backups actual work, as it’s hard to simulate offensive line play without live game reps. Of course Farniok is going to struggle when he’s playing between Hoffman and Josh Ball; those are three guys with very little playing experience. But can Farniok hold up for four games between Tyler Smith and Tyler Biadasz while Tyron Smith recovers? Or can Waletzko play up to his potential with a future Hall of Famer next to him?

It’s not easy to extract these performances and project them to the hypothetical situations described above, but that’s why these coaches have the jobs they do. And when it comes to offensive line depth, it’s more about being able to fill in for one player rather than all five players playing well together. That makes it difficult to put much stock in the line’s preseason performances, but it does help to ease concerns after a shaky first two preseason games.

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