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Can Cowboys offensive line rebound from injury-ravaged season?

The Dallas Cowboys went into the 2020 season with the offensive line expected to be a strength but, after several high-impact injuries, the unit became a weakness.
Credit: AP
Dallas Cowboys guard Zack Martin (70) is assisted off the field by team medical staff after suffering an unknown injury in the first half of an NFL football game against the Washington Football Team in Arlington, Texas, Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)

DALLAS — The story of the Dallas Cowboys these days revolves around quarterback Dak Prescott and his contract situation. There’s good reason to follow that situation closely, but, if you’re sick of Prescott extension talk, there are other things to pay attention to with the team.

The draft and free agency are creeping up as the NFL offseason gets underway, which means it is a good time to break down what the Cowboys are in need of to improve the team ahead of the 2021 season.

One of the groups that the Cowboys are uncertain at is the offensive line. It feels odd for the Cowboys to be in this position because, just a year ago, this seemed like an area of strength. In February 2020, the offensive line looked like it was already set and was expected to be one of the top units in the league once again. 

Tyron Smith was the stalwart All-Pro left tackle, Connor Williams was looking to deliver on his promise at left guard, center Travis Frederick was expected to come back even better in his second season away from Guillain-Barre syndrome, Zack Martin was aiming for a fifth All-Pro year, and La’el Collins was coming off his best season at right tackle. 

Everything seemed to fit perfectly but things are much cloudier 12 months later. 

The veteran Smith only lasted two games last season and hasn’t played a full slate since 2015, Frederick retired before the season began, Martin was limited to 10 games, and Collins missed the entire season with a hip injury that was seemingly a result of coming to training camp out of shape. 

It was a short-handed unit to begin the year and things went downhill quickly from there. Only Williams made it through the season playing all 16 games, a first in his career, and without Frederick, the offense turned to Joe Looney at center. Looney didn’t hold up and the team was forced to go to their third option in the middle of the line.

With a new season coming in 2021, the offensive line is still in limbo. No one knows what Smith will bring to the table after neck surgery and there were rumblings out of the blue that Collins might retire. Thankfully that was shut down quickly after Collins’ agent took to Twitter to deny the rumors.

The good news is that the 2020 season brought experience and options for the Cowboys. Williams had his best season, while fellow young guard Connor McGovern got valuable experience. Rookie Tyler Biadasz also stood out and appeared to win himself a job as the center of the future for Dallas. If Collins, Martin and Smith all return to their dominant selves, the lost 2020 season could be a blessing.

Smith needed some rest after the wear and tear of 10 years in the league, the team found their replacement for Frederick, and the Cowboys saw what young backup tackles Brandon Knight and Terence Steele were made of. Forced into action, the duo made it clear that the team needs to have improved depth for next season. If Smith or Collins get hurt again, Dallas will need to be better equipped to handle their absence.

Another positive for the Cowboys is that the upcoming draft has a high number of quality tackle prospects. If the team gets a sense that Collins or Smith will remain hampered and cannot perform the job adequately moving forward, they can find help in April.

Most mock drafts have at least four tackles going inside the first round and the position is believed to have very good depth. Oregon’s Penei Sewell, Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater, and Virginia Tech’s Christian Darrisaw are the best of the group and at least one of them should be available with the 10th pick in the draft. However, if the Cowboys should choose to wait, they would still have solid players available past the first round. 

One thing was made clear in 2020, the Cowboys cannot stand pat with what they have at the offensive tackle position. The team must prepare as if Smith cannot hold up for the entirety of a season and have some better talent to plug in and play. 2020 should have set off alarms for Dallas to start thinking about the future of the tackle position.

On the interior of the line, it feels like it’s Biadasz’s job to lose at center and the team had to be encouraged by his play as a rookie. Martin should continue to be among the best guards in the league, while Williams elevated his play at the left guard spot. The Cowboys also have decent depth to sustain an injury on the inside with McGovern seeing extended action.

A full remake isn’t needed for the Cowboy offensive line, but a better insurance plan and preparing for the future is. A good place to start would be in this year’s draft.

It’s a far cry from where Dallas was a year ago in terms of the perception of their offensive line, but it is a good reminder for how quickly things can change.

How do you feel about the state of the offensive line for the Cowboys? Share your thoughts with Ben on Twitter @BenGrimaldi.