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The Dallas Cowboys Quietly Have Built 1 of the NFL's Best Offensive Lines

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The Dallas Cowboys Quietly Have Built 1 of the NFL's Best Offensive Lines
LM Otero/Associated Press

If the NFL needed a motto—and it most certainly does not—it would only be appropriate if the league identified itself first and foremost as a society in which rags can turn to riches at an unparalleled speed. We see it each year as somewhere in the range of a dozen teams transition, seemingly on a dime, from "good" to "bad" and vice versa. 

Coming off three consecutive 8-8 seasons, the Dallas Cowboys aren't exactly poster children for that sort of fluctuation to and from the realm of competitiveness, but that changes if you're to take more of a micro approach by looking only at the Cowboys' offensive line.

Only 13 months ago, said line was considered to be one of the worst in football.

ESPN's Jean-Jacques Taylor in November of 2012: 

Jerry Jones has one task this offseason: Fix the Dallas Cowboys' offensive line. Nothing else matters. Not signing Tony Romo to a new deal. Not courting Sean Payton. Nothing. Making this raggedy offensive line a playoff-caliber unit must be Jerry's top priority.

Jonathan Bales of DallasCowboys.com in January of 2013: 

Outside of a handful of games, it was obvious to anyone who watched the team in 2012 that the offensive line struggled, and with the current rotation, it’s unlikely that Dallas would improve much offensively in 2013.

And a wonderfully imaginative Deadspin comment from just this past September: 

Our offensive line is made up of Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick's beard and three cardboard cutouts of Nicki Minaj from the front window of FYE. If Romo makes it to week six without being severed in half by sixteen Giants defensive tackles, this season is a success.

Last February, Jimmy Kempski from Blogging the Beast authored a timeline of what he called "Jerry Jones’ unwillingness to appropriately fix his offensive line," ultimately establishing that—up to that point—only about a handful of NFL teams had neglected their lines as much as Dallas. 

Today, after only a couple of tweaks and with several players coming off improved seasons, the Cowboys suddenly have one of the finest offensive lines in football. 

Here's how it happened.

 

Three of their last four first-round picks have been offensive linemen

Left tackle Tyron Smith went first overall in 2011, center Travis Frederick was chosen 31st in 2013 and new left guard (and ideally eventual right tackle) Zack Martin was selected 16th last Thursday night. 

Prior to that, the Cowboys hadn't drafted a single offensive lineman in the first round since—and I'm being totally serious right now—1981.

Dallas Cowboys: Offensive linemen in Round 1 (all time)
Draft Pick Slot Position
2014 Zack Martin 16th Tackle
2013 Travis Frederick 31st Center
2011 Tyron Smith 9th Tackle
1981 Howard Richards 26th Guard
1979 Robert Shaw 27th Center
1966 John Niland 5th Guard

Credit: Pro Football Reference

That's right; the last time America's Team addressed the line in Round 1, a 38-year-old Jerry Jones was CEO of Jones Oil and Land Lease in Arkansas, Ronald Reagan had just taken office and precisely two members of the team's current 90-man roster were alive. 

Why the sudden shift of focus from Jones? Maybe it was pressure from the media and the fans. Maybe it was the influence of his son, Stephen, and/or head coach Jason Garrett. Maybe he just matured as a general manager. Maybe he just had an epiphany.

All that matters is that the front office finally began to think less about Q ratings and more about football ratings, which is why Smith and Martin are Cowboys and Tim Tebow and Johnny Manziel are not. 

 

Smith is a franchise left tackle

There's no doubt about where Smith's trajectory is heading. As a 20-year-old rookie on the right side in 2011, he was graded by Pro Football Focus (subscription required) as the third-best tackle in the NFL. He moved to left tackle in 2012, experiencing some growing pains while still earning a positive PFF grade. But in 2013, he exploded. 

Per PFF, Smith was the only tackle in football to surrender fewer than two sacks on over 1,000 offensive snaps last season. As a result of that and some stellar run blocking, he was named a second-team All-Pro and earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl. 

 

Frederick has All-Pro potential 

With the most important position on their offensive line taken care of by Smith, the Cowboys turned their attention to center in last year's draft. Many—including yours truly—thought they were reaching so hard they'd pull a myself when they picked Frederick 31st, but Frederick was so damn good as a rookie that we're all eating our words. 

Not only was he PFF's seventh-best center in 2013, but the Wisconsin product was also graded as the best run-blocker in the league at that position. As a result, he was named to every rookie team in the universe and is already viewed as one of the top centers in football.  

 

Martin isn't a sure thing, but he's pretty damn close

The Notre Dame product wasn't just considered to be one of the most versatile players in this year's draft, but was also viewed as one of the safest prospects in the 2014 class. As a result, the Cowboys will look to lean on Martin, a two-time captain and four-year starter with the Irish, from the get-go. 

He has the ability to temporarily slide into the starting left guard spot, upgrading the interior of the line while waiting for right tackle Doug Free to vacate that starting spot. That might not happen immediately, but there's no rush. If Free isn't gone next year, it'll be an indication that the veteran played well enough in 2014 to earn more time in the starting lineup. That's never a bad thing.

Martin is disciplined and polished, and he doesn't have any glaring weaknesses. That bodes well considering all of the problems Dallas has been having at guard of late. 

 

Free is hungry

The last time Free was in a contract year, he was graded by PFF as the fourth-best offensive tackle in all of football. That was 2010, and it earned him a lucrative new deal, which Dallas certainly regretted when Free went on to play like complete garbage in both 2011 and 2012. In those two seasons, the Northern Illinois product gave up 16 sacks and was penalized a league-high 25 times. 

But he bounced back in a big way last season, bringing those sack and penalty totals down to six and eight, respectively, while earning top-20 grades from PFF in terms of both run and pass blocking. Now, the pressure's on again, especially with Martin in the fold. Something tells me Free will come up big in a somewhat desperate situation. 

 

Competition is healthy at right guard

Unless you've got an absolute blue-chipper, using really early draft picks on lifelong guards is silly. You're simply able to find too many players at that position later in the draft or in free agency. That's why the Cowboys have smartly avoided using their early picks on that position. 

But by moving Martin inside early on, they're at least igniting a heated competition for the final starting spot along that line. Ronald Leary and Mackenzy Bernadeau both possess starting-caliber talent, but neither has performed well enough on a consistent basis thus far.

Handing them starting jobs without competition is dangerous, but forcing them to one-up each other throughout training camp and into the regular season could pay off in a big way. 

 

They're only getting better

In 2012, Dallas allowed pressure on the quarterback 196 times, according to Pro Football Focus, which was the fifth-highest total in the NFL. They also averaged only 3.6 yards per carry, which ranked 31st in the league.

From a sheer statistical standpoint, we already saw immense improvement in 2013, with the pressure total dropping to 162—PFF graded the line as the eighth-best in football in terms of pass-blocking efficiency—and that yards-per-carry average skyrocketing to 4.5 (also good for a No. 8 ranking league-wide). 

As a result, PFF actually ranked the line fourth in football, and that was before it added Martin in the first round of the draft.

"When things go wrong in Dallas they get magnified," wrote Khaled Elsayed in January. "But the truth is their line was a pleasant surprise as they opened up some big holes for DeMarco Murray and gave Tony Romo ample time to work with."

Football Outsiders also ranked them in the top 10 in terms of both run blocking and pass protection. 

Most of that had to do with Smith's maturation as a player, Frederick's arrival and Free's rejuvenation. It's hard to believe, but Smith, Frederick and Martin are each only 23 years old. Leary is only 25 and has plenty of room to improve. And Free, who is the old man of the group, only celebrated his 30th birthday in January. 

Projecting the Dallas offensive line
Position Player Age Drafted PFF rank
Left tackle Tyron Smith 23 9th 5th
Left guard Zack Martin 23 16th N/A
Center Travis Frederick 23 31st 7th
Right guard Ronald Leary 25 UDFA 55th
Right tackle Doug Free 30 122nd 18th

Credit: Pro Football Focus/NFL.com

So sure, there's a lot to be frustrated about if you're a Cowboys supporter. But if you're looking for a reason to be optimistic about a hobby (sports fandom) that is at least supposed to give you some happiness and excitement, take solace in the fact that in 2014 and beyond, your franchise quarterback and stud running back are in very good hands, from left to right. 

It's been a while since that was last the case. 

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