Before the season, the Dallas Cowboys probably never envisioned Ronald Leary playing as big a role as he has in 2016. They had brought in La'el Collins from LSU the year before, and Collins had won the job away from Leary mid-way through the abysmal season. Collins was the guy for the future, and some were already anointing him as the team's next Larry Allen.
Then, Collins was injured. Early in the Cowboys week 3 game with the Chicago Bears La'el suffered a toe injury which would send him to the Injured Reserved. Out went Collins, in came Leary. With that switch, Ezekiel Elliott went from being under 100 yards the previous two weeks, to running an incredible stretch of four straight games over 134 yards.
Leary has been phenomenal this season, and is clearly the better guard for the Cowboys at this very moment. Still, La'el Collins is the fourth piece of the Cowboys offensive line of the future. No matter how well Leary played this year, the odds were that there would be no spot for him on the 2017 Cowboys.
That means, of course, that he will be looking for a new home, and it is highly unlikely his options will be too limited. Leary will have a few things working in his favor come Free Agency time.
The Cowboy Factor
Being known as a member of the best unit on Earth has its benefits. One of them is, people simply expect that you are good. Whether Leary is truly a top-tier guard or not, the fact that he is a member of the vaunted Cowboys offensive line brings his stock up in the eyes of many.
Of course, he has been a key piece on the line, but blocking for Zeke and the 12-2 Cowboys certainly will have its benefits on the open market. We have seen the effects of the Cowboy factor with former Dallas linemen Mackenzy Bernadeau and Jermey Parnell in the past. Neither of those guys had the impact that Leary has had, either, and they still easily found new teams.
The O-Line Market Stinks
Simply put, the offensive line play around the league has declined. More and more you are seeing college linemen who get into the NFL without any real knowledge of how to block for an NFL scheme.
The growth of spread, read-option type offenses at the high school and colleges levels have sort of diluted o-line play, as young linemen aren't learning how to block traditional run plays or drop-back pass plays much anymore. Pass blocking involves more 3-step drops, resulting in more quick sets and even cut blocking on pass plays in college. Even when quarterbacks do hold onto the ball, sprint-out protections are often used in college.
If you need to improve your o-line, like most teams do, they will need to do so through free agency. This means that Ronald Leary is going to be getting a lot of calls this Spring, fielding deals for as much as $8 million. If Leary leaves, the Cowboys can probably expect a 4th round compensatory pick back for him.