As recently as just a few seasons ago we saw the Dallas Cowboys’ offensive front develop into one of the most formidable units in all of football. Fast forward to Travis Frederick’s retirement and an injury-rattled 2020 campaign, and the Cowboys offensive line represents a shell of itself as they head into a crucial season in which they’ll be tasked with protecting quarterback Dak Prescott for 17 games (or more).
Looking back: Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, and Tyler Biadasz all spent time on the shelf, each of them with connotations to start as Dallas approached Week 1. They were a mangled group with rotational pieces in Joe Looney, Terence Steele, and Connor Williams, who, in retrospect, played relatively well considering the circumstances around him.
As bad as that sounds, it doesn’t include Frederick’s retirement who was the most dominant center in football, who played next to one of the top guards in the league, who played next door to one of the league’s top tackles. It also doesn’t include La’el Collins, who missed the entirety of the season due to a nagging hip injury. Their afflictions limited everything Dallas did or didn’t do, on the offensive side of the football, leading to a 6-10 record.
In Weeks 2-5, Dallas was a juggernaut on offense, scoring 30-plus points in each of its respective matchups. The injury bug ultimately remained cocooned before it began to rear its ugly head as the Cowboys approached the second half of the season. Both Smith and Collins were placed on season-ending injured reserve following the Week 9 matchup against Pittsburgh; Cameron Erving and Brandon Knight missed time; Steele was thrown to the wolves; and despite it all, Connor Williams served as a lone bright spot starting every game up front for a unit that allowed 44 sacks, 21 more than in 2019.
The transformation of the unit had its trickle-down effect with Ezekiel Elliott totaling a career-low in rushing yards (979) and yards per carry (4.0) while tying his career-low in touchdowns (6) and fumbles (6). It was an abysmal year up front for the Cowboys, and even with the core group of lineman primed and healthy for a bounceback 2021 season, what is it to say the injury bug won’t strike again; or simply the fact of another season in pads could add increased wear to the tires of Smith and Martin who both have logged over 100 career starts and now enter their first campaign on the bad side of 30 years old?
Despite the success, and lack thereof in recent seasons, Dallas has continued to add depth and spot start talent behind its elite front five for seasons on end, most recently selecting Josh Ball (fourth round) and Matt Farniok (seventh round) in 2021 and Connor McGovern in 2019, while signing the five-position versatile Ty Nsekhe in free agency to serve as a veteran presence in case of a similar scenario playing out this fall to where if Smith, Collins, or both of Dallas’ bookend tackles were to miss time, Nsekhe’s versatility, depth, and experience would allow the Cowboys to continue normal operations without suffering a fall in play up front.
It all ties back to Prescott, a dynamic talent under center, but will he be the same Dak Prescott of old? Say what you want, but his injury, that injury, as gruesome and spine-chilling as it was, will remain in the back of his mind for as long as he suits up under center. It inherently shines a spotlight on the overall execution that will be expected of Dallas’ front five, which accordingly branches out to the production of the entire offensive unit.
On paper, they’re a force to be reckoned with; on film, they’ve proven to be one of the most dominant units in football when in sync, but with multiple starters coming off injuries and an emphasis on being that much more technically sound to keep Prescott upright, Dallas could be hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst with a multitude of questions surrounding durability as the start of training camp approaches.
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