With April fast approaching, Cowboys fan’s attention is once again turning to the NFL draft. One of the obvious needs for the Cowboys (to everyone except Jerry Jones apparently) is improving the offensive line. Beyond the good but not always consistent Tyron Smith at left tackle, Dallas has a less than impressive group along the offensive front. There is no arguing that the Cowboys have suffered in both the run game (or lack thereof) and in pass protection as Romo’s agility is the only thing between them and 50-sack seasons. The Cowboys hold the 18th pick in the first round and many fans are begging the Cowboys to take the best offensive lineman available at that spot. The thinking of course is that whoever the team selects there will be an immediate upgrade.
However, let’s look at the Cowboys recent draft history on offensive lineman. It has not exactly been a hit parade and should give ardent Dallas fans a moment of pause.
After adding both Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings as free agent guards last off season, the Cowboys did not draft an offensive lineman in the 2012 draft. Both Bernadeau and Livings struggled throughout the season and are a big reason the team still sees this as an area of need. Romo would certainly agree. Here are the draft picks.
Tyron Smith – Tackle. Smith was the 9th overall pick in the 2011 draft out of the University of Southern California and the first offensive lineman selected. The Cowboys left Mike Pouncey and Nate Solder on the board when they took Smith as the highest pick for an offensive lineman by the Cowboys since Guard John Niland was selected with the 5th overall pick in the 1966 NFL draft. Smith has started from day one and has played well but is not nearly as consistent or dominant as you would expect a 9th overall pick to play – particularly in the run game. But, to be fair, the Cowboys did not help his development by putting him at right tackle his rookie season and then switching him to left tackle in 2012. As he became more comfortable on the left side, his play improved noticeably in the back half of the 2012 season. And, an offensive line has to work as a unit and he has not had consistent talent around him. Solid pick, but not a home run (yet).
David Arkin – Guard. Selected after Tyron Smith in the 4th round in the 2011 draft out of Missouri State. Still on the roster, but has never challenged for a starting role. Nothing speaks louder about the team’s assessment of his abilities than the fact that they went out and signed two free agent guards before the 2012 season. Not at all guaranteed to be on the 2013 opening day roster.
Bill Nagy – Center. Taken in 2011 in the 7th round out of Wisconsin. Nagy worked his way into the starting lineup in 2011 and played fairly well in four games before fracturing his ankle and being placed on IR. When he suffered a severe high ankle sprain in the preseason last year, the Cowboys tried to waive him and sneak him onto their practice squad, but the Detroit Lions claimed him off waivers. He did not play a down for the Lions in 2012 so we’ll have to see what he does this year, but this is one that probably got away if he ends up staying healthy.
Sam Young – Tackle. Selected in the 6th round in 2010 out of Notre Dame. Played in 2 games on special teams in 2010 and was waived by the Cowboys at the end of the 2011 training camp. Claimed off waivers by the Buffalo Bills, the 6’8″, 308 pound Young is currently listed as their starting right tackle.
Robert Brewster – Tackle. Selected in the 3rd round out of Ball State as part of the disastrous 2009 draft. Missed his entire rookie season with a torn pectoral muscle and never really challenged for playing time. He was waived by the Cowboys and hit their practice squad in October 2010. He was waived again in July 2011 and was then banned by the NFL for a year in December 2011 for use of a banned substance.
James Marten – Tackle. The Cowboys did not select an offensive linemen in the 2008 draft. But, in the 2007 draft the year before, the Cowboys selected Marten out of Boston College in the 3rd round. Marten never made it on to the active, game-day roster in his rookie season and was waived by the team before the 2008 season.
Doug Free – Tackle. Cowboy fans are all-too familiar with Free taken in the 4th round of the 2007 draft out of Northern Illinois. He played one game in 2007 and missed the entire 2008 season with a back injury. He replaced Marc Columbo at right tackle in November of 2009 and finished the season at that position. When Flozell Adams was released prior to the 2010 season, Free became the starting left tackle. He played consistently well enough that season to earn a bloated 4-year, $32 million dollar contract from Jerry Jones. Since signing that big contract, he’s looked like a completely different (and bad) player. He was moved back to right tackle last season and now there is talk of trying him at guard in 2013. Most fans believe the Doug Free “experiment” should be over and the team can’t afford to keep him despite the guaranteed money that was part of his 2011 contract. Free is likely to be an after June 1 cut saving the Cowboys from having to count his base salary this year against the salary cap.
Let’s not forget to add Al Johnson (Guard, Wisconsin, 2nd round, 2003), Jacob Rogers (Tackle, USC, 2nd round, 2004), and Stephen Peterman (Guard, LSU, 3rd round, 2004) to the litany of busts on the offensive line.
For a comparison, let’s take a quick look at how the Cowboys assembled their last dominant group of offensive linemen. The NFL game has certainly changed a bit since the mid nineties, but three things are clear: 1) a high draft pick from a big-name program doesn’t guarantee success, and 2) the offensive line must play as a unit and each player is only as good as the group around them, and 3) sometimes it takes a while to put a winning unit together, but it starts with good drafts in consecutive years.
1995 Dallas Cowboys Offensive Line
LT – Mark Tuinei, University of Hawaii, undrafted rookie free agent, signed with Cowboys in 1983
LG – Nate Newton, Florida A&M, undrafted rookie free agent, signed with Cowboys in 1986
C – Mark Stepnoski, University of Pittsburgh, drafted 3rd round in 1989
RG – Larry Allen, Sonoma State, drafted 2nd round in 1994
RT – Erik Williams, Central State University, drafted 3rd round in 1991
No matter what the Dallas Cowboys end up doing with the 18th pick in the NFL draft, it is going to depend on this team’s ability to properly evaluate and develop talent. Just the fact that a player is taken with a high draft pick doesn’t guarantee success on the offensive line. Based on recent history, don’t be surprised if the Cowboys go a different direction with their first pick and wait to see what is available at the 15th pick of the 2nd round. Regardless, let’s hope Tyron Smith marks both the end of a really bad string of offensive line moves and the beginning of a successful run of productive draft picks. Go Cowboys!