Average is a tough thing to be. Average means you're not competing for a championship, depriving your fans of the hope of immediate contention. Average also means you're working with average draft assets, depriving fans of the ability to bank everything on the bright hope of future contention. The Cowboys were average this year, and they've been average for quite a while. Building a strong team despite that status quo isn't easy.

Fortunately for the Cowboys, they do have a nice core of players assembled. They have drafted well over the past three years (a rarety for this franchise) and those young cornerstones, as well as a few holdovers from the Bill Parcells era, give the team a decent base. What we'll do here over is go through the team's roster and rank the ten players most indispensable to the Cowboys' success. Keep in mind that this isn't about the players who stand out most relative to their peers at their position -- LP Ladouceur may be the best long snapper in the league, but he's still a longsnapper, so he won't be here.

This also isn't strictly about the future. Anthony Spencer is a free agent, and there is no guarantee the Cowboys bring him back. Jason Witten and Tony Romo have reached the age where they're far more likely to decline than improve. But those three players will be featured prominently on the list. Think of this as a list for 2013. Over the coming year, these should be the best of the Cowboys' best; their most important pieces in the hunt for contention.

#9: Left Tackle Tyron Smith

The biggest thing to remember about Tyron Smith is that he turned 22 a month ago.

The Cowboys' left tackle spent a year as the NFL's youngest player after Dallas took him with the 9th pick in the 201 draft. Smith never played left tackle at USC and only had two years on the right side -- but those two years of tape were enough to make Cowboys personnell absolutely giddy. The team had not selected a first-round offensive lineman since 1981 (30 years before), and Smith was the blue-chipper chosen to end that streak. Legendary line coach Hudson Houck reportedly said he was the most impressive prospect he'd ever evaluated. The hype built when the soft-spoken tackle kicked off his post-draft press conference by stating his aspirations - winding up in the hall of fame.

Smith played right tackle as a rookie, as Doug Free was coming off a very strong year on the left side and had just secured a 4-year, $32 million contract. Cowboys fans should feel a strong blend of revulsion and helpless amusement when considering that everything in that statement is true. But while Free's play took a nosedive as soon as he became expensive (rimshot, please) Smith had a very strong year on the right side. While he had some pass-protection issues early in the season, he rallied in a major way and finished the season as easily the Cowboys' best offensive lineman.

Pro Football Focus had Smith rated as the top right tackle in the entire league (consider that he played nearly the entire season as a 20-year old). Houck was interviewed by KTCK's Norm hitzges after the season, and he said his young charge had 'Larry Allen talent' and 'would be one of the best to ever play the game.'

The accolades kept coming. Head Coach Jason Garrett declared early in the offseason that he would flip his offensive tackles -- Smith would be playing on the more challenging left side, Free on the right. New offensive line coach Bill Callahan said he'd "never had anbody like him" in 32 years of coaching football. During training camp, DeMarcus Ware said Smith was the first guy to consistently lock him up. "When you try to beat him inside, you can t. He s just that athletic."

Reads like the beginning of a superstar campaign, right? Well, not so much. Tyron Smith remained the Cowboys' best lineman, but he wasn't the world-beater everyone expected him to be. According to Pro Football Focus, Smith allowed the quarterback to be pressured on 6% of all snaps -- higher than you'd like from a blue chip tackle, even considering the quality of pass rushers he faces on the left side. Smith was only charged with three sacks, but committed 11 penalties -- something which would have been talked about a lot more if not for Doug Free somehow managing to pick up 13. Let's stop talking about Doug Free now.

There is some explanation for Smith's struggles this year. It's well-documented that he spent a large part of the year struggling with family members who were apparently hell-bent on hounding the young tackle and squeezing every possible dollar out of him. The situation developed to the point where a 6'5, 308-pound professional athlete had to file protective orders on his own family and call the police for protection. Smith didn't say much about the situation; he doesn't say much about any situation. But apart from the obvious distraction it created, there were reports he was 'emotionally torn apart' by what was going on. Understandably so.

Nothing's come out on that since initial reports came out in late October. We don't know enough to say whether things are settled. We do know Smith played better in the season's final two months than he did in the first two. He had only two penalties, was the Cowboys' only consistent run-blocker and more than held his own against a strong slate of pass-rushers.

There's a reason I began this article with Tyron's age. His developmental chart is still in its very early stages - the upside is there for him to become one of the NFL's very best tackles. As is, he was far and away the team's best lineman in both 2011 and 2012. If he develops as expected, the ability is very, very fun to dream on. Much like Mo Claiborne, I expect he'll rank much more highly on this list one year from today.

The list, as it stands:

#9: LT Tyron Smith
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