As I continue my Playoff Primer series, we'll wrap up the offensive line by looking at the embarrassment of riches the Cowboys have on the interior. For my breakdown of the offensive tackles, check out “Playoff Primer: Dallas Cowboys Offensive Tackles“.
Let's start in the middle.
Not only is Travis Frederick one of the most talented centers in the league, but he is one of the smartest, making him the perfect center-man for this star-studded offensive line. Perhaps Frederick hasn't gotten enough credit for working with rookie QB Dak Prescott, who has noticeably been making plenty of adjustments at the line before receiving a snap from Frederick.
Once thought of as a reach when he was drafted in the first round by Dallas in 2013, Frederick has proven to be an anchor in the middle for the Cowboys. When it comes to the 2016 playoffs, he will have an even better chance to prove his worth, as the team's the Cowboys may face all present tough interior defenders.
Whether it is the 3-4 look of the Green Bay Packers or another match up with Damon Harrison and the New York Giants, Frederick is going to have his hands full throughout the playoffs – but should be up to the challenge as a blocker that excels with leverage and relatively consistent short-range power.
Long live the beard.
Where would the Dallas Cowboys be without Ronald Leary? Once seen as an off season distraction when he held out over losing his job to La'el Collins, Leary is now the starter this team needs at left guard. A veteran that can be trusted, Leary has the luxury of playing between Frederick and Tyron Smith – but individually excels as a run and pass blocker.
Leary has handled his new situation as a starter like a professional, and even if it just to get paid elsewhere for 2017, he can be a huge part of hopefully guiding the 2016 Cowboys deep into the playoffs.
Leary did not play in week 17 against the Eagles, and had at times before this looked slightly off his game. Hopefully the two weeks off will rejuvenate Dallas' starter at LG, who just consistently blocks any defender thrown at him throughout the day without a worry.
Fun fact: I own a Zack Martin jersey.
Also a fun fact: Martin is arguably the best guard in the NFL. While Ron Leary puts in work as a reliable left guard, Martin absolutely dominates at the right guard position for the Cowboys on every snap – and has since his rookie year in 2014.
Just watch the holes that Ezekiel Elliott ran through to become this season's rushing champion, and you'll often see a blue #70 in front of him paving a path to the second level.
Martin is not only an elite run blocker that will thrive this postseason, but he limits pass rushers as soon as he gets his hands on them – a trait that is often thrown around when discussing linemen, but rarely seen at the quality that Martin exhibits.
Perhaps the biggest difference for the Cowboys going into the 2016 playoffs compared to 2014 is that their workhorse back is much more well-rested. If Zeke Elliott is going to eat his way to Houston and Super Bowl LI like we all think he's capable of, he will owe a ton of credit (and maybe another ATV?) to Zack Martin.
My fellow Staff Writer and New Jersey resident Kevin Brady already did most of the leg work right here when it comes to breaking down what the recently signed Jonathan Cooper can bring to the Cowboys as a backup guard.
Cooper, a former first round pick, has yet to settle in to a long-term role in the NFL – bouncing around as a guy that always had the potential but lacked the film to match it at this level. Even still, as a backup here in Dallas, Cooper is one of the best players the Cowboys could have brought in to potentially have to fill in at either guard position.
If called upon in the playoffs, I do worry that Jonathan Cooper may fall behind as a run blocker, with a limited amount of time to learn Scott Linehan's zone blocking scheme. With enough experience and strength though, Cooper is likely as good of a backup lineman as there is to be found on any team currently in the playoffs.
Of all of the talented guards and centers the Cowboys employ, swing man Joe Looney is probably the one you least want to see have to play in these playoffs. Looney does have some game experience that Cooper does not at left guard for the Cowboys, but this experience has only shown that Looney will struggle greatly throughout the course of a game.
Between the occasional good reps, Looney will get overpowered with bad technique, and more importantly get beat across his face on running plays – a major error in executing the zone scheme.
Looney's value in Dallas comes from the fact that he can play both guard and center, but since we opened this Playoff Primer praising Travis Frederick and all of his awesomeness, Looney will likely serve as just an emergency guard this postseason.
The X-Factor: La'el Collins
I'm fascinated to see what the Dallas Cowboys do with La'el Collins in the playoffs. Back to work at practice, Collins doesn't have to worry about preparing himself to start at left guard – as Ron Leary has that spot secured.
Instead, the Cowboys are going to have to get creative with how they utilize this first-round talent that they signed after the 2015 draft.
One area this team is thin at right now is tight end, and this offense sorely misses a versatile TE like Geoff Swaim that can block on the edge and present a threat in the passing game. While Collins gives the Cowboys virtually nothing as a pass catcher, lining him up in “Jumbo” sets as a tight end is almost unfair to edge defenders.
With Elliott in the backfield and Collins on the edge, defenses will have to change their entire look, which could lead to more chances for Dez Bryant and other WRs in single coverage. Collins' best trait is his ability to move and block on the run, so I also wouldn't be surprised to see him out in front of those always well-times toss sweeps.
It could be a very fun playoff run for La'el Collins, but his role and overall health is uncertain, making him this unit's x-factor.