The Dallas Cowboys have found a recipe for success which is starting to come to fruition. Read my article on their Offensive Line below:
The current starters
LT – Tyron Smith, 25 years old [2011, R1 P9]
Tyron Smith attended Rancho Verde High School in Moreno Valley, California where he played football on the Offensive and Defensive Line. He excelled in football and athletics at High School, earning All-American honours for football and was a stand out in shot put (14.23m) and discuss (46.62m).
Smith was a five-star recruit and listed by Scout.com as their no.1 Offensive Tackle prospect and Rivals.com’s no.6 Offensive Tackle prospect. Smith signed with USC despite offers from UCLA, Notre Dame, Florida and Nebraska. Smith was back-up LT during his freshman year before starting every game of his sophomore season at RT (except the Bowl game due to academic ineligibility). Entering 2010 and his junior season, Smith lost the battle for USC’s LT spot to Matt Kalil and started every game again at RT. Smith won First Team All-Pac-10 and the Morris Trophy for the Conferences top offensive linemen. Smith left college a year early and declared himself for the 2011 NFL Draft where he was considered one of the top Tackle prospects. Smith had an impressive NFL combine and many considered him an ideal franchise RT or with some work on his technique, he had the ideal frame and athleticism to play LT.
Tyron Smith was drafted 9th overall in the 2011 NFL Draft. He was the first Offensive Linemen taken in the draft and selected ahead of the premier pass rushers in the 2011 Draft Class, notably Wisconsin’s J. J. Watt, North Carolina’s Robert Quinn, Purdue’s Ryan Kerrigan, Cal’s Cameron Jordan and Temple’s Muhammad Wilkerson. Smith was the first Offensive Linemen drafted in the first round by Jerry Jones since he bought the team in 1989. Smith started every game during his rookie season as a 20 year-old RT. He excelled and by the start of his second season was the Franchise’s LT for the foreseeable future. In 2013 Smith allowed only one sack and had just one holding penalty, earning him his first Pro Bowl. Smith had an impressive 2014, as he earned his second Pro Bowl, a First Team All-Pro nod and became the first Offensive Linemen to win a Player of the Week award in nearly 10 years (his performance against the Seahawks). Smith signed an 8-year, $109m contract extension before the 2014 season, making him the highest paid Offensive Tackle in football.
Smith is phenomenal in pass protection (among the top 3 in the League) and the best run blocking LT in the NFL. In 2014 he anchored a Line which produced the League’s leading rusher (DeMarco Murray), 4th leading rusher in 2015 (Darren McFadden) and the current rushing leader Ezekiel Elliot (2016). Tyron Smith is the best LT in football and current QB Dak Prescott benefits from having a specimen of a LT who protects his blind side and allows plays to develop downfield by keeping opponents pass rushes at bay. Smith runs faster than most Defensive Linemen in the run game and its his ability to either beat people up in the trenches or block further downfield on pull plays that allows the Cowboys to have success no matter what RB is in the backfield.
LG – Ronald Leary, 27 years old [2012 undrafted]
Ronald Leary did not play organised football until his junior year in High School but still earned All-State and All-Region honours for Southern University Lab High School (LA). Leary earned scholarship offers from Clemson, LSU, Nebraska and Ole Miss but signed with Memphis.
During Leary’s redshirt freshman year he was the teams backup LT and RT. Leary was named the teams starting LT entering his sophomore year and remained there for the remainder of his college career as he made 36 consecutive starts. Leary had surgery to repair a torn meniscus but did not miss a game his senior year. Leary started at LT before switching to RG due to injuries and protected three different QBs.
Ronald Leary went undrafted in 2012 despite a third round grade from many scouts, due to a degenerative left knee conditions which many worried would shorten his NFL career. The Cowboys managed to steal Leary as an undrafted free agent and handed him a higher contract than many undrafted free agents receive. Leary did not start a game in 2012 but battled for and won the starting LG spot heading into the 2013 season, starting every game in 2013, and 15 games in 2014 at LG. Leary faced competition in 2015 from talented rookie La’el Collins. Leary started 3 of the first 5 games before being replaced by Collins as starting LG during the Cowboys Week 6 bye. Leary’s 2015 was hampered by a groin injury he suffered in training camp, however, after being benched he started Dallas’ final game before exiting with a concussion. Leary started the season behind La’el Collins in the depth chart, however, Collins tore a ligament in his foot in week 3 and Leary has started since then. He has refound his run blocking form which was instrumental in DeMarco Murray’s monster 2014 and has also proven himself able in pass protection.
C – Travis Frederick, 25 years old [2013 R1 P31]
Travis Frederick was an All-State two way linemen at Big Foot High School in Walworth, Wisconsin. Frederick also excelled in athletics where he competed in shot put (15.23m) and discuss (49.3m). Frederick was only considered a 3 star recruit by Rivals.com and was ranked their 83rd best Offensive Tackle prospect in his class. Frederick received offers from smaller programmes: North Dakota State, Navy, Army, Air Force and Minnesota, however, he accepted a scholarship to play for Wisconsin (A Big Ten power house).
At Wisconsin Frederick became the first true freshman to start the season-opener for the Badgers on their Offensive Line. Frederick played Center, but an ankle injury in week 2 knocked him out of the line up until the final two games where he played first Left Guard and then Center. In order to preserve a year of Frederick’s eligibility, the Badgers redshirted him his sophomore year, however, following injuries he started 11 of 13 games at Left Guard and 2 at Center. Frederick became Wisconsin’s starting Center in his Junior year and started all 13 games before being named an All-American by Pro Football Weekly. He forewent his Senior year and declared himself for the 2013 NFL Draft. Despite being ranked as the draft classes top Center, Frederick underperformed at the Combine and was graded by many as a second to third round talent. The Dallas Cowboys selected him with the 31st overall pick, late in the 1st round (after trading out of the 18th overall pick).
Many criticised the Cowboys selection of Travis Frederick as a reach based on his presumed availability in the second round. But Travis Frederick has out performed all expectations and has so far started every single game in his four years at Dallas. Frederick was the franchises first rookie Center to start every game (replacing two year starter Phil Costa) and was named on the Rookie All-Pro Team. Frederick continued his development in his second season as he anchored the League’s best Offensive Line helping DeMarco Murray lead the league in rushing and was voted to his first Pro Bowl and 2nd Team All-Pro. Frederick made Pro-Bowl and 2nd Team All-Pro in 2015 after he worked with four different QBs with varying degrees of knowledge of the teams offence. This required Frederick to make more protection calls and showed just how valuable a member he is of the Cowboys Offensive Line. He is currently Pro Football Focuses #2 Center this season and is excellent in calling out protections and in pass protection. Yet it is his run blocking ability which truly sets him apart and he is one of the few Centers in the NFL who can pull on run plays and get into the second level to create lanes for RB Ezekiel Elliot.
RG – Zack Martin, 26 years old [2014 R1 P16]
Zack Martin attended Bishop Chartard High School in Indianapolis, Indiana. He was a stand out along both the Offensive and Defensive Line and earned the nickname “the butcher” from opposing fans. He was selected to play in the 2009 Under Armour All-American in Florida and also competed in shot put and discuss. He was a four star recruit and Rivals.com’s 22nd Best Offensive Tackle in the nation. He turned down offers from Michigan, Stanford, UCLA, Indiana and Kentucky to attend Notre Dame.
Martin redshirted 2009, before starting all 13 games as the Irish’s starting LT in 2010. In 2011 he again started every game at LT and was part of a Line that allowed only 17 sacks during the season and boasted a running game that averaged 4.8 yards a carry (the best number by a Notre Dame team since 1996). In 2013, Martin was one of the teams four captains and started every game at LT as Notre Dame went 12-0 before meeting Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game. Martin returned for his senior season and was again named a Captain. He started all 13 games at LT, setting a new school record with 52 career starts as an Offensive Linemen. He was the leader of a Line that allowed only 8 sacks (tied for 2nd best in the FBS) and was named MVP of the 2013 Pinstripe Bowl, becoming the first Offensive Linemen since 1959 to receive that distinction in a bowl game. Martin was selected 16th overall by the Dallas Cowboys despite rumours that the team might select QB Johnny Manziel.
Zack Martin has excelled in his short period in the NFL. He he started every game in his three year career and was named to the Pro-Bowl in both his first and second season. He was 2nd Team All-Pro in 2015 and as a rookie selected to 1st Team All-Pro in 2014. He was the first rookie Offensive Linemen to be named to a 1st Team All-Pro since 1947. Martin is a physical RG who can bully Defensive Tackles in pass protection and run blocking but is athletic enough to pull and get into the second level to block downfield. Martin is the best Guard in football and at 26 years old, it is clear that the future is bright for Martin.
RT – Doug Free, 32 years old [2007 R4 P122]
Doug Free attended Lincoln High School in Manitowoc, Wisconsin where he excelled as a Defensive Tackle. Free was a two star recruit and accepted a scholarship to play for Northern Illinois. Free settled at LT at Northern Illinois and was twice named All-Mac. Free was taken late in the 4th round after the team had taken James Marten, an Offensive Tackle out of Boston College early in the 3rd round.
Despite being named as a Starter during the pre-season of his rookie campaign, Free injured his knee and would miss the first 15 games of the season before playing RT in the 4th quarter of the Cowboys last game. Free started 7 games at RT in 2009 after he missed the 2008 season due to injury. Free started every game at LT in 2010 and 2011, however, following the selection of Tyron Smith he moved to RT. He started every game at RT in 2012 and 2013. He started 11 games in 2014 at RT along the League’s best Offensive Line but was required to have surgery the following offseason. Since 2015 Free has started every game at RT for the Cowboys. Free has been an average Linemen for the Cowboys and has at times been a liability due to the number of penalties called on him. Free is an average RT, however, he is helped by the studs that play next to him on this talented Offensive Line.
La’el Collins, G, 23 years old [2015 undrafted]
La’el Collins attended Redemptorist High School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He was regarded as a five star recruit by every major recruiting source and ranked as Rivals.com’s no.2 Tackle in the country and ESPN’s no.3. Collins received offers from every major programme in the country but committed to play for LSU.
Despite playing in only seven games as a true freshman with no starts, Collins was named a Freshman All-American by CBS. Collins started all 13 games for LSU in his sophomore season at LG and led the team in total snaps and knockdowns (64.5). Collins moved to LT in his junior year and started 12 of the 13 games. He was part of a line which posted school-records of 465.9 total yards per game, and a school record 37 rushing TDs. Collins returned for his senior season where he played all 13 games at LT and led the team in total snaps and knockdowns (88). The Tigers offence rushed for 224.5 yards per game (highest school total since 1997). Collins’ performance earned him 2014 1st Team All-SEC, 2nd Team All-American and the Jacobs Blocking Trophy (top Offensive Linemen in SEC).
La’el Collins was considered a top-ten prospect by most analysts a lock as a 1st round pick. However, Collins went undrafted after it was reported that he would meet with Louisiana police about the death of a pregnant woman he had previously had relations with (Collins was reported as not being a suspect). Collins’ agents threatened that he would sit out the 2015 season and return to the 2016 Draft if any team took him after the 3rd round. Following the Draft there was a mad scramble to sign Collins with the Miami Dolphins going as far as to fly starters WR Jarvis Landry and C Mike Pouncey down to Louisiana to convince Collins to sign with Miami. Collins eventually signed with the Cowboys on a 3 year deal.
Collins saw brief action in the line up during the first few games on the 2015 season, however, he surpassed starting LG Ronald Leary on the depth chart during the Cowboys Week 6 bye and started the rest of the season as the Cowboys LG (he was injured in the final game). La’el Collins started the 2016 season at LG for the Cowboys, however, he was injured in week 3 and has since been on injured reserve. Dallas does however hope that Collins can make it back into the line up by late December.
What has it enabled the Dallas Cowboys to do?
On Offense the Dallas Cowboys have excelled with a rookie Running Back and a rookie Quarterback. This is unheard of in the NFL and although both players are extremely talented, they do benefit from having the NFL’s best Offensive Line in front of them. The Cowboys O-Line is excellent in pass protection and with Frederick under Center the protection operates smoothy with each Linemen knowing their role. This allows QB Dak Prescott plenty of time to stand tall in the pocket and progress through his reads until one of his receivers uncovers. Prescott has been sacked only 18 times this season (5th lowest in the NFL) and the confidence he has in his Offensive Line allows him to hold the ball for longer while allowing his receivers to break coverage down field. This Line is able to sustain its blocks long enough so that if receivers do no uncover downfield, Prescott is able to scramble and break off long runs to move the chains.
The Dallas Cowboys Offensive Line is extremely physical. Ezekiel Elliot is a gifted athlete and RB, however, he benefits from running behind a Line that has a pedigree and history of churning out large rushing totals each season. The Line boasts four Linemen who are able to pull and execute blocks in the second level, while their interior is compiled of three large men who are ale to exert their physical will on opposing Defensive Lines. They also have the best LT in football who is a bruiser in the run game. The Cowboys O-Line opens holes which Elliot can hit at full speed and allow him to develop speed as he is largely untouched until 3 or 4 yards down field. This style of play allows the Cowboys to control the time of possession which is important in keeping their Defense off the field and fresh. It also benefits rookie QB Dak Prescott who is not asked to win the game single handedly as he can lean on his Offensive Line and run game.
The Dallas Cowboys have found a recipe for success which is starting to come to fruition. The NFL is a copycat league and the Titans this past offseason were the first team looking to replicate Dallas’ run-heavy game by loading up their Offensive Line and RBs. Is Jerry Jones and the Dallas Cowboys ahead (or behind?) of their time by investing heavily in their Offensive Line? One things for sure, it all starts upfront in big D.