Four of the five starting offensive linemen for the Dallas Cowboys were first round selections in the NFL Draft. Left Tackle Tyron Smith, Center Travis Frederick, and most recently Right Guard Zack Martin have all done their part in establishing the Cowboys’ identity up front — collectively signaling a culture change in Dallas as the team has thrived with their running game.
Considered a bust prior to starting alongside Frederick and (mostly) Smith at left guard for the Cowboys this season, Jonathan Cooper is also a former first-round pick who will now enter free agency. Add in the once projected first-round status of RT La’el Collins, and the Cowboys offensive line is truly a modern football masterpiece — a crafty collection of talent that does well to not handicap the team’s salary cap.
Coming off of a 9-7 season defined by who wasn’t on the field through crucial stretches, a serious case could be made that no absence set the Cowboys back more than that of Tyron Smith in 2017. Lingering back issues remaining a concern, Smith missed three games entirely this season, also exiting the Cowboys’ final home loss to the Seahawks after one series.
Without Tyron Smith in the lineup, the Cowboys did their best to get franchise QB Dak Prescott killed. In a loss that began with a stretch of three straight in week 10 at Atlanta, Prescott was sacked eight times with Chaz Green unable to hold up at LT.
Thinking all the way back to training camp in Oxnard, Green was originally the favorite to be the Cowboys’ starter at LG, after Collins made his transition to RT. Starting Cooper allowed the Cowboys to instead keep the injury-prone Green as tackle depth off the field, having Collins as additional insurance inside should the line be forced to reshuffle.
Of course, Cooper also did not survive 2017 without injury, departing the Cowboys’ meaningless week-17 win in Philadelphia with a knee injury. All indications are that he should be ready for next season, whether he is with the Cowboys or elsewhere.
This sudden uncertainty on the Cowboys’ offensive line warrants this question:
Should Dallas use the 19th pick on another offensive lineman?
The Cowboys could get maximum value out of this pick by drafting a tackle with the ability to start his career at guard. In a draft class that lacks “star power” at the top, where the best overall player may be Notre Dame Guard Quenton Nelson, making this safe pick at 19th overall is far from the worst thing the Cowboys could do.
In doing so, there is no hiding the fact the Cowboys would have to ignore more pressing needs elsewhere on both sides of the ball. Plugging Jonathan Cooper back in at left guard, and looking for depth behind Smith later in the draft or in free agency could open up the board elsewhere in the first round. If recent history is any indication, this will basically be the Cowboys approach leading up to the draft.
The Cowboys don’t like entering the draft pigeonholed at any one position, allowing them to draft the best player available.
Last year’s draft also tells us a pure “BPA in round one” approach is far from reality for the Cowboys, as Head Coach Jason Garrett made his winning pitch for Michigan DE Taco Charlton over other highly graded prospects in Dallas.
Knowing how well this current front office and scouting staff evaluates offensive line talent, making the greatest strength even stronger feels like one of the most reassuring ways for the Cowboys to return to form in 2018. Expecting 16 games out of Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys could be much closer to the 13-win team they were in 2016, or 12-win team of 2014 with a better-than-ever OL and healthy defense.
As the Cowboys roster stands currently, there aren’t many positions where immediate starters could be drafted in the first round or beyond.
Defensive tackle, linebacker, safety, and wide receiver stand out as four potential areas in need of young talent.
Whether or not the team feels like they can wait to continue building their fast-developing defense or add weapons for Prescott until later in the draft — or wait to risk seeing their offensive line actually hold them back again — is going to be a difficult decision that will leave some fans unhappy, no matter the outcome.
For a talented team with ten picks in this 2018 NFL Draft, starting the roster build in April by hitting on a potentially needed OL pick at 19th overall feels like a great way to get the Cowboys back on track.