As soon as the heartbreaking, mediocre 2012 season was in the books, Dallas Cowboys fans immediately realized the main culprit for failure on offense fell squarely at the feet of the offensive line.
Most demanded a massive overhaul with several new additions and the immediate shedding of dead weight. Some expected Jerry Jones may fail to live up to their lofty desires, yet at least would address the problem with a few new improvements.
The unpredictable GM proceeded to merely add a single high draft pick in Travis Frederick to instill fresh air. Even that selection was controversial as many experts and fans alike felt Frederick was nabbed far above his deserved draft position.
Not quite the ‘uncomfortable’ overhaul of the worst problem area on the team as many begged for. However, there are a few things to consider when analyzing the o-line for the coming season. For one, Phil Costa and Kevin Kowalski are basically new additions in 2013, as both were predominantly unavailable last year.
Ronald Leary and David Arkin made no regular season contribution in 2012, yet both are said to be stronger and making noticeable improvements (especially Leary). The o-line as a group in 2013 may only have one new face, but there are several quality reasons for expected improvement for Dallas fans to hang their hats on.
1) TYRON SMITH GAINED LEGITIMATE PRO EXPERIENCE AT LT
As a rookie in 2011, Tyron Smith was forced to learn on the job how to effectively play right tackle against top NFL competition. In 2012, Smith again assumed a new NFL position and was baptized by fire at left tackle.
Finally in 2013, Smith now has the luxury of returning for his second season at the same offensive line position. This will allow the 22-year old to spend an entire offseason fine-tuning his own LT skills instead of learning the basics of the position.
He will be able to correct mistakes, and improve his trade through picking up the little nuances that elevate a talented young player into an NFL savvy veteran.
Smith has nowhere to go but up after a year under his belt as a starting NFL LT, and the positive growth for 2013 will be openly noticeable.
2) DOUG FREE FACES DIRE FUTURE CONSEQUENCES
- a) Remaining an NFL starter
Jermey Parnell is hot on the heels of Doug Free and he obviously feels the burning flame. Which is why his game did show improvement at the end of last season when Cowboys’ coaches finally became fed up and rotated in his back-up.
If Free were to lose his starting job in 2013 to Parnell, or for that matter even continue to be part of a rotation, a starting role in Dallas will be the least of his concerns going forward. Dallas likely wouldn’t pick up his second year in the new, adjusted contract he agreed to.
No team wants to pay a guaranteed $3.5 mil for a part-time starting RT if there are legitimate superior options at the beginning of the 2014 offseason (both free agency and draft).
- b) Last shot at salvaging his career
So let’s say Free stays a part of the RT rotation, which means he plays average at best. Dallas would surely cut him in March 2014 and avoid another chunk of guaranteed salary to a conclusively subpar player.
After the Cowboys give him the axe, how much would another team realistically invest in him following 3 straight mediocre (if not awful) years? Certainly nowhere remotely near the $3.5 mil he gets now.
How about if he loses his starting job outright to Parnell? In 2014, Free could say good riddance to any salary figure significantly above the league minimum, as he’d be viewed as second-rate goods.
Doug Free is 29 years old, right about the age many offensive linemen land in their prime. His career is far from over if he proves he still has solid worth in Dallas or elsewhere in the NFL.
Bottom line is simply Doug Free is playing to determine the quality of his remaining NFL and financial future in 2013. Another unacceptable year and he becomes an inexpensive cautionary tale in the eyes of the league.
3) DEPTH, DEPTH, DEPTH
- a) Tackles remain solidly reinforced with a capable Jermey Parnell
In 2012, Jermey Parnell showed why he is considered a sturdy back-up for starters Tyron Smith and Doug Free. So much so that in 2013 he’ll likely see time as a starter rotating with Free, or even could purge the leading role.
Quality depth with Parnell behind the tackles stays the same, yet there is also a new factor in the back-up tackle role. Darrion Weems, the second year undrafted free agent from Oregon, is turning heads at Valley Ranch.
- b) Center is light years ahead of disastrous 2012
First-round draft pick Travis Frederick is now playing the favorite to win the starting center nod. Regardless of the starter, Frederick, Phil Costa, and Kevin Kowalski are all 3 superior centers to the 2012 starter Ryan Cook.
2 of those 3 players will become the starter/back-up combo in 2013, and either will land the Cowboys in much better shape in the middle than 2012.
- c) Guards are loaded with hungry players fighting for playing time
Ronald Leary and David Arkin both will be a year stronger and wiser. Leary may even snag a starting spot from Mackenzy Bernadeau or Nate Livings. Any losers of the starting center race (Frederick, Costa, Kowalski) are capable of being quality supporting guards, if not starters.
Despite who wins the starting 3 positions at center and the guards, the remaining contestants all are quality replacements behind them and as a 2nd unit will be much improved upon 2012.
4) A STARTING CALIBER, TRUE CENTER FINALLY MANS THE MIDDLE
Since the Cowboys cut ties with Andre Gurode in 2011, the team has been void of a true starting center playing the position. Phil Costa (2011 starter) played all but one year of college at Maryland as a guard. He began his NFL career at guard as well. Costa certainly filled the role of an NFL guard converting to center.
Ryan Cook (2012 starter by default) was a center in college at New Mexico. However, in Miami he played both back-up guard and back-up center. While he has past experience as a center, he certainly was void of solid starting experience in the NFL before 2012.
Travis Frederick likely will now take over the reigns as the starting center in Dallas. He played 3 seasons at center for Wisconsin. The earlier years he rotated at center and guard, and his Senior season he won (First-Team) All-Big Ten Center honors.
While it’s yet to be determined how he will translate against NFL defenders, it seems Dallas coaches like what they see so far as he’s receiving the majority of starting snaps at OTA’s.
5) A YEAR OF CONTINUITY WITH THE GUARD/TACKLE COMBOS
Offensive line coaches preach continuity along the line increases trust and production as a unit, and wisely so. Knowing what the other guy is doing or will do through experience together pays large dividends compared to uncertainty.
A complete NFL season of playing side-by-side by Tyron Smith / Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau / Doug Free will only increase their unification under fire. Sure 3 of those guys had very questionable years and may do so again, but playing a second year with the guy next to them will not contribute to lackluster play, quite the opposite.
The logical forecast for the 2013 Dallas Cowboys’ offensive line is they will improve upon 2012 across the board…just how much will make or break all playoff aspirations.
Each and every position is better off than the previous year, be it through continuity, depth, or elevated skills from more experience with the offense and players surrounding them.
There’s not one single spot from the starter to the back-ups that has weakened or failed to gain ground in some fashion.
Let’s just hope the improvements are sizable enough to keep Tony Romo off his back for the most part, and also clear a path for DeMarco Murray to finally pound the endzone at a respectable rate.