2012 NFL Free Agency: The Dallas Cowboys Offensive Line Needs an Anchor
By Brad Austin
The anchor being referred to here is certainly not of the nautical variety. The 2011 Dallas Cowboys and their 8-8 collapse is not quite a devastating tragedy along the lines of the Costa Concordia cruise ship. Well, in most circles outside of Valley Ranch that is. Wait a second, Costa Concordia cruise ship, Cowboy’s center Phil Costa…oh the irony.
In 2011 the Dallas Cowboys interior offensive line left much to be desired. Call it youth, inexperience, injuries, whatever you must; either way most Cowboys fans agree upgrading the interior offensive line is of high priority in the 2012 off-season. With much of the Cowboys nation screaming ‘guard, guard, guard’, Carl Nicks is the hot choice to fill this slot. Before completely breaking the bank by signing a top 10 overall free agent in Nicks, and vastly depleting the team’s much needed free agency funds on one star player, Dallas needs to explore the center angle.
The 2012 Cowboys most pressing, feasible interior line need is an accomplished, veteran anchor leading the big eaters up front. The center is the commander of the front five, the line general responsible for assigning blocking responsibilities and also adjusting these calls on the fly.
Any quarterback will attest a capable center is akin to a security blanket for the big man on campus. With a solid center consistently snapping the ball to the quarterback’s gratification, it allows the offense to hum along and the QB to immediately focus on his downfield progressions. Hauling in a grounder off his shoes or snagging an alley-oop out of the sky delays the precise process of reading the coverage and creates far more stress and urgency on the quarterback than necessary.
The true importance of the quarterback-center cohesive relationship is best described by successful veterans who have experienced and mastered the unbelievably complicated nuances of the demanding center position.
"“The quarterback needs to feel comfortable with what is happening in front of him with protection. When a center and quarterback have chemistry, the quarterback will understand what protection calls are going to come and why that call was made. — Eight-time All-Pro center Kevin Mawae“The chemistry is important in that you are both trying to communicate in the same way so that all five linemen, tight ends and running backs are on the same page, and that usually starts from the center’s call.” — Five-time Pro-Bowl center and current free agent Jeff Saturday"
Each comment above comes from a center that made the Pro Bowl at least four times beyond his 30th birthday. This fact is of great importance as the top five available free agent centers in 2012 are all players above 30 years of age. Longevity and playing at a very high level deep into a center’s career is certainly not uncommon and should not be overlooked. Even Cowboys legend and five-time Pro Bowl center Mark Stepnoski was signed for a second stint in Dallas at the age of 32, and played three more solid seasons before retiring in 2001.
Certainly adding a center with 30 or more years on his tires is a greater risk than adding an accomplished youngster. In some cases it can also be less expensive with performance clause bonuses such as a certain amount of games started by the player taking place of some of the outright salary. With the uncommon high age of this year’s FA center crop providing more risk, it’s a necessary gamble in Dallas that can be overcome with proper analysis of a player’s recent performance, history of injury, etc.
Naturally all fans desire a top flight lineman over an adequate one. But where the debate enters into this Cowboys offseason is which is the biggest need, guard or center? And more specifically should Dallas upgrade the starting guard spot opposite Kyle Kosier or improve upon starting center Phil Costa. Between Bill Nagy, Phil Costa, David Arkin, and Kevin Kowalski, Dallas certainly can find a quality starting guard and also an adequate backup guard/center out of that bunch.
All of these guys have extensive backgrounds playing guard before the NFL. Of those four named players, three will be second year players whom have never gone through a full NFL offseason. And Costa, approaching only his third year, has yet to go through the new Cowboys strength and conditioning program. I do see a quality starting guard surfacing from that bunch by September. For my money it’s Bill Nagy returning from injury to nail down a spot, with David Arkin supplying capable guard relief.
Is there a solid starting center in this same bunch? Let’s just say I’m much more comfortable with Nagy starting at guard than Costa or any of the other youngsters starting at center with fingers crossed. In 2011, Costa graded out at the lower end of NFL centers in his first year starting, and I just don’t see him making a huge leap to the top third of NFL centers. Costa is somewhat undersized and the league is becoming loaded with powerful, massive beasts slamming the middle.
Nagy is naturally a better guard than center. Kowalski has potential but was a backup this year and a jump to a strong starting center would be even more drastic than Costa doing so. Dallas needs a powerful, experienced NFL center to oppose these monsters, yet one also equipped with the football experience and intelligence to direct calls to the interior guys to help the offense coordinate a unified attack.
Drafting a rookie center while already having four interior offensive linemen 24 years old or younger on the roster, and all with one full off-season between them is certainly not the way to go. Even if it was a worthy risk, this draft offers nothing near the quality of a Pouncey brother at the center position like the past few years.
In 2012 Dallas needs a grisly veteran center that will step in ready to play at a high-level from day one, has a vocal nasty streak, will communicate calls efficiently, and get the job done on a consistent basis. A center that has been in with the tigers and already sent many of them home on an empty stomach.
I’m not suggesting they grab an All-Pro center and break the bank, but instead sign a solid veteran with size, a nasty streak, proven consistency, and a reputation for leadership of young players. This veteran needs to teach the youth in the Cowboys interior line how the cow ate the NFL cabbage. He will share with them the little intricacies of proper preparation, the slightest hints to gain advantages on the field, and an all-around winning attitude at the pro level.
My suggestion is Dallas go after free agent Nick Hardwick previously with San Diego. He possesses all of the qualities listed above. Hardwick is big, nasty, yet also has a great, unselfish team attitude. He consistently grades out annually in the top third of NFL centers. And at 30 years old, none of the top five centers in free agency is younger. Hardwick had one penalty all season and allowed zero sacks, two QB pressures, and seven hurries in 2011. These are all very high marks for a starting center. And apparently the veteran receives high praise in San Diego.
"Hardwick often gets vocal during practice when the offense and defense compete with one another and is recognized as one of the line’s leaders by his teammates and lauded for his work ethic by Turner. But Hardwick deferred questions about himself twice, instead talking about the line as a unit.“I really don’t evaluate my role very much,” Hardwick said. “I think we’ve got a lot of strong leaders on this team and it’s more of a core of guys who are expected to be at the front of this thing. Wherever I fit into that, I’m happy with it.”At 6-foot-4, 305, the center continues to lavish effusive praise on the offensive line coaches for giving attention to each member of the roster regardless of their role, which he says contributes to their ability to be ready. He could be talking about himself, too. The time off to heal his injury didn’t force him to re-learn everything.— Christopher Smith at Chargers.com"
Nick Hardwick sounds exactly like the type of player and teammate needed at Valley Ranch to teach and command the deep collection of young interior offensive linemen. And with adding a high-quality free agent center, the Cowboys open up even more possibilities with the draft. Imagine sitting at pick 14, the corner or defender Dallas covets most slides off the board just prior, and there sits David DeCastro available at guard. I’d be hard-pressed to find disappointment in passing over defense in favor of the DeCastro selection.
The sheer brute force of an offensive line consisting of Tyron Smith (6’5, 310), David DeCastro (6’5, 310), a hefty FA center like Nick Hardwick (6’4, 305), Kyle Kosier (6’5, 305), and Doug Free (6’6, 315) would be a daunting site. Talk about an absolutely massive group with an average player size of roughly 6’5, 310 pounds. That herculean collection of men would rank in the top ten NFL offensive lines without question. I assure you the 2011 Cowboy’s paltry 5 rushing touchdown total would double at the very least, and certainly Tony Romo would sniff the grass far less often.
I’m not suggesting David DeCastro is the best first-round draft selection over defense, merely if he was the path the Cowboys chose with the 14th overall pick, it would be difficult not to get excited over the offensive potential. Worst case scenario, Dallas goes defense with their first pick and the battle for starting left guard proves to be unfruitful. All is not lost, there’s annually a Montrae Holland or Derrick Dockery type guard looking for work at bargain prices in August.
It’s time for the Cowboys to fortify the front line by adding a solid free agent anchor. Combine this with the proper additional moves during the off-season (which adding a center makes more feasible), and 2012 will finally be the year the Boys righted the ship in Dallas.
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