The Dallas Cowboys used free agency’s second wave to add three experienced veterans to the offensive line. In so doing, they have created more leverage and flexibility for themselves in the upcoming NFL Draft.
Over the last week, Dallas has signed offensive tackle Cameron Fleming and guard-center Marcus Martin. They also re-signed Joe Looney, who has been a backup center and guard for the Cowboys the last two seasons.
Fleming and Martin have started 20 and 24 games, respectively, since both entered the NFL in 2014. Unlike some other young reserve players, the Cowboys had plenty of film to look at to measure their interest in these linemen.
That interest was also fueled by need. Last year’s starting left guard, Jonathan Cooper, left in free agency to join the San Francisco 49ers.
The four key names on the Cowboys’ offensive line are all returning: Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, and La’el Collins. But that opening at guard is a major concern for Dallas as they continue through the offseason.
Finding a new starting guard through the draft has been a hot topic in Cowboys Nation. UTEP’s Will Hernandez and Georgia’s Isaiah Wynn have been heavily discussed, and there is plenty of reason that Dallas might consider using their first-round pick to shore up the offensive line.
With the 19th pick, whatever player the Cowboys draft will get a modest rookie contract. Last year’s 19th pick, Bucs’ tight end O.J. Howard, got a four-year deal for about $11 million. That’s just $2-3 million for four years of having another likely Pro Bowl talent.
One dilemma is how you eventually keep all of these former first-rounders financially compensated, but the timing of this would work out fairly well.
By the end of that contract in 2022, Dallas would have Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick at 32-years-old. They could likely move on from one, shedding a big contract to open up space to re-sign whatever player they draft this year.
But still, that means you’ve tied up for first-round picks in just your offensive line. How long can you keep loading resources into that spot while neglecting your receivers, defensive line, or linebackers?
That’s where the free agent signings we discussed before come in handy. If the Cowboys decide to address other position in the draft, they now have three guys with starting experience who might be able to serve as a band-aid starter in 2018.
Joe Looney has been here for two years and started a few games in that time. He knows the system and should be serviceable playing between Smith and Frederick.
While not having the same familiarity, Marcus Martin is younger and is a former third-round pick. Perhaps there’s some upside there that basement-dwelling teams like the 49ers or Browns weren’t able to tap into.
If it’s Cameron Fleming, he would likely take the right tackle spot and La’el Collins would move back to guard. Collins played guard his first two years before moving to RT last year, filling in after Doug Free’s retirement.
That was a reactionary move, though. Even though Collins played OT in college, Dallas liked him better as a guard when they acquired him. Free’s retirement was unexpected and Dallas had to scramble, and Collins did well there all things considered.
Fleming has been a swing tackle for four years and part of a highly successful franchise coming from New England. He was trusted in big games, including a Super Bowl, to help protect one of the league’s oldest and most immobile quarterbacks. If the Patriots could rely him with Tom Brady at risk, the Cowboys could do the same with Dak Prescott.
After last season’s problems, the Cowboys will likely rely on their run game all the more in 2018. Ezekiel Elliott’s legal issues are behind him and he should be ready for a heavy workload. That will help Dak Prescott get back to his rookie form, hopefully alleviating pressure and working out whatever issues developed during his sophomore slump.
Naturally, these issues mean the offensive line can’t be taken lightly. Dallas would be justified in spending another first-round pick there.
But Prescott also needs more receiving weapons to succeed. Allen Hurns helps this year but what about 2019, when Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley, and Jason Witten could all be gone?
It would be far nicer to have a young WR or TE stepping into a larger role in his second season, rather than as a rookie. The same goes for a linebacker who might need to replace Sean Lee. These present and future needs should have Dallas looking at lots of players and positions with their early picks this April.
That’s why these offensive line signings are so helpful. No, you may not love the idea of Looney or Fleming starting 16 games next year. But there’s only so much cap space and so many draft picks to address an entire roster, and you can’t develop tunnel vision about the offensive line and leave yourself too vulnerable elsewhere.
Ideally, the only game these guys would start next year is Week 17 after we’ve clinched a first-round bye. We’ll have to wait and see if these signings, and 2018 as a whole, work out that well.