Lost in the hubbub of the big awards at last Saturday’s NFL Honors show was the Dallas Cowboys’ offensive line being named Offensive Line of the Year. The glory may not last long for some of the league’s best blockers, though, as the 2017 offseason should come with some roster changes.
2016 was the first year that this award has been given and they couldn’t have picked better recipients . Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, Doug Free, and Ronald Leary were the foundation that helped the Cowboys’ rookie stars on offense, quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott, have tremendous seasons.
With expiring contracts and salary cap concerns on the horizon, how might Dallas’ award-winning offensive line look different in 2017?
Ronald Leary is set to be an unrestricted free agent. The Cowboys will likely let Leary go and give the job back to La’el Collins, who was the starter in 2015. There are a few reasons why this is the most logical move.
Some have argued that Leary is the better player. It’s easy to look at the seasons DeMarco Murray had in 2014 and Ezekiel Elliott last year, with Leary starting at guard, and develop that perception.
However, La’el Collins not only had Darren McFadden carrying the ball in 2015 but the absence of a passing game when Brandon Weeden, Matt Cassel, and Kellen Moore were at quarterback. His two full games in 2016 were at the start of the year when Ezekiel Elliott was still adjusting to NFL speed.
Dallas needs to find out quickly what Collins is worth. This is the final year of his contract, although Dallas will be able to give him a Restricted Free Agent tender in 2018. Still, whether it’s deciding what level of tender to give or maybe giving Collins a completely new contract, the Cowboys need to see how he performs.
Not only do the Cowboys need to find out more about La’el Collins but Ronald Leary may quickly plateau as an asset. As has been known throughout his career, Leary has a knee condition which puts his long-term future in question. He has already played more and longer than some thought possible.
If not for Collins, Dallas might be willing to keep giving Leary short-term contracts as long as his knees allow. However, Collins’ potential is too great to leave on the bench and Leary is too good to be a backup again. He should easily find a starting job elsewhere and deserves that opportunity.
I wrote extensively a few weeks ago about why Dallas needs to part ways with Doug Free. To summarize, he has become too much of a liability in pass protection and still generates too many penalties. Free is still a great run blocker but at this point that doesn’t outweigh his negatives.
Another big reason is financial. Dallas can create $5 million in cap space by cutting Free. Dallas is going to need some cash as they try to sort out Tony Romo’s contract and find some needed upgrades on defense.
Of course, creating cap room is only worthwhile if you don’t have to turn around and spend it all on a replacement. A quality free agent right tackle can cost about as much as we’d save by releasing Doug Free. That has led some to think he should just be retained for one more year.
I see it differently. For one, Dallas has a few in-house options with Chaz Green, a former third-round pick, and reserve Emmett Cleary. Both looked good in limited duty when playing for Tyron Smith at left tackle. In many cases, someone who can handle playing on the left is even better when they go to the right.
If a Cleary-Green battle for the job doesn’t do it for you, Dallas could also look for a cheaper veteran option. Can we really say that Doug Free in 2017 would be much better than some other veteran, age 30-35, willing to play one a one-year deal for the veteran minimum? Free’s play last year leaves that open to debate.
La’el Collins to Right Tackle?
Some have suggested that Dallas could solve both of their problems by moving La’el Collins to right tackle. Collins played left tackle at LSU but has been at guard since entering the NFL in 2015.
Collins started at right tackle when he joined the Cowboys but ended up at guard before the end of preseason. How much of that is due to Collins struggling at tackle has never been confirmed. Dallas may have simply felt his best position with the highest upside was at guard.
Could the Cowboys cut Doug Free, move La’el Collins into his spot, and then keep Ronald Leary? It’s not out of the question, but it all comes down to three factors:
- Do the Cowboys think Collins can be effective enough at RT?
- Does Dallas feel moving Collins would stymie his development?
- Do the Cowboys trust Ron Leary to keep going?
Unfortunately, we can’t know the answers to those questions. Dallas will make it clear how they feel about all of these issues in how they handle the upcoming offseason.
For all that’s unknown, though, it seems likely that at least one or two of the starting offensive line positions will change. Hopefully, even if some players leave, that award-winning level of play will not go with them.