An in-depth look at the favorites to start at each position on the Cowboys offensive line and why the best days for this unit are ahead of them.
The Cowboys 2009 offensive line helped lead the franchise to its first playoff win since 1996, but they had reached their collective and individual peaks. Flozell Adams was released shortly after that '09 season, and Leonard Davis, Marc Colombo, Andre Gurode were all cut before Week One of the 2011 season. And with Kyle Kosier's recent release, the Cowboys will be lining up at scrimmage in 2012 completely free of these relics.
The Week One starting offensive line could look something like this (left to right): Tyron Smith, Nate Livings, Phil Costa, Mackenzy Bernadeau, and Doug Free. I know, who the hell are these people? Well, don't let the lack of name recognition fool you. Even in this era of celebrity, SEO, and Twitter followers, hardline old-schoolers like myself can take solace in the fact that offensive line play depends on none of these. And I'm here to let you know you should be excited about the future of the Cowboys offensive line.
Here's a breakdown of each offensive lineman and what you should expect this season:
Tyron Smith, Left Tackle
Be excited. Very excited. Say hello to your franchise left tackle for the next 15 years. The Cowboys scored big time last April drafting Tyron Smith with the ninth overall pick. I can't say enough about Smith. As a 20-year-old rookie (born 12/12/1990) Smith started all 16 games at right tackle for the Cowboys. Let me repeat that: A 20-year-old started all 16 games at tackle in the NFL. And oh yeah, he was the Cowboys' top-graded offensive lineman according to PFF.
What's even better is just how raw Smith still is. At 6'5" 307 lbs, Smith is a physical phenom. He's possibly the only NFL O-lineman with a 6-pack. He also has the frame to put on additional muscle mass over the next few years, which will only increase his ability. And with a new and assuredly better, offensive line coach in Bill Callahan, Smith should reach his potential even sooner.
The only question will be Smith's switch to the left side this season. He played only right tackle throughout his college career, and played every game on the right side this past season. This shouldn't affect his run-blocking abilities, but his pass-blocking skills might require some adjustment time. Footwork is critical in offensive line play, even more so at the tackle position where playing in space against world-class athletes is an issue.
Smith will have to learn to drop-step with his left foot as his anchor instead of his right. Everything he has learned over the past five or so years has been from the right side. Muscle memory is a funny thing and moving to the left side will require Smith to battle with instinct, a time-intensive endeavor. Smith undoubtedly has the athletic ability to overcome this, but don't be surprised if you see some early struggles from him. In the long run though, Smith will definitely make the transition and, barring injuries, could be a future Hall-of-Famer.
Nate Livings, Left Guard
Livings will likely be the most scrutinized member on the O-line. The deal to bring him to town has already faced heavy criticism due to his age and the contract size. But before we do the Dallas thing and start ragging on a guy before he comes to town (See Lamar Odom), we should take a closer look at what we actually have in Nate Livings.
First of all, although Livings is 30, he's only started 47 games (equivalent of three full seasons) so he doesn't have the physical wear that most 30-year-old guards have at this point in their careers. He's proven that he can play offensive line in the NFL, and is arguably in the prime of his career. He's now the most experienced offensive lineman on the team and is known to play with a mean streak. Experience and tenacity are two very nice qualities to place next to your 21-year-old left tackle.
Livings isn't some heralded messiah, he's just a stopgap, but he is a very capable one. He's a solid lineman who will likely be assisting the center rather than the franchise left tackle. At 6'5" 332, expect to see him dominate smaller defensive tackles, like the ones Philly and New York will be lining up. He's not as good in open space, so don't expect to see him doing much pulling. His experience and strengths should fit in nicely with the Cowboys.
And regarding his contract, it's only $6.2 million guaranteed, which isn't a heavy cap burden for the future. Ideally, Livings will give the Cowboys two to three solid seasons while we draft/develop younger players. In the end, I think this is a much smarter move than most people have initially thought.
Phil Costa, Center
Costa won't be turning any heads, but currently he's the Cowboys' only solid option at center. He started all 16 games last season as a 23-year-old after having only played in four games (one start) his rookie season. That's not a terrible resume for an undrafted free agent. He probably won't replicate Andre Gurode's five Pro Bowls, but he's young and has decent potential. This year he'll be better and now has a year of experience under his belt. With new faces at both guard positions and a tackle swap, it will be nice having consistency at the center position.
Costa is a smart kid (two-time Academic All-ACC) which is very important at the center position because the center makes all the calls for the offensive line (e.g. calling the defensive front, adjusting blocking schemes). He's also a very good athlete. He holds the O-line record at Maryland for clean (435 lbs.) and was second all-time among O-lineman in vertical jump (35.5 in.). Both of those numbers indicate incredible explosiveness, which is exactly what you want out of the center, who is usually tasked with making blocks at the second level. Costa also has the ability to play guard (18 starts/26 games at left and right guard in college). He'll likely remain at center, but his versatility, youth, and skill make him a very underrated lineman for the Cowboys.
Mackenzy Bernadeau, Right Guard
This signing excites me. Well, anxious is probably a better word. We don't' know too much about Bernadeau at this point. Foregoing offers from D-I schools, he played college ball at Bentley College, a D-II school, staying closer to home so his disabled mother could still see him play. While at Bentley, he became a starter his freshman year and started a total of 37 games while there. He's had 20 starts in his four year NFL career, mostly at left guard, but has also served as a fill-in at right guard and center.
What intrigues me most about Bernadeau is that he also won back-to-back strongman competitions in '08 and '09. At 6'4" 308 lbs. Bernadeau brings great size and strength to the position, ideal for a run blocking guard. Generally, linemen who are better run blockers than pass blockers anchor the right side of your line. Of course, at this level you better be able to do both, but it's a good idea to put your two best pass blockers on your quarterback's blindside.
We don't know much about Bernadeau's specific skill set at this point, like whether he's a good pulling guard or has good blitz recognition. But we do know that Cowboys defensive line coach, Brian Baker, spent two years in Carolina watching Bernadeau block his d-linemen. This might be the tip that brought him here, and I'm hoping the payoff from this tip is as good as the tip Norv Turner gave Jason Garrett about Laurent Robinson this past season.
Bernadeau will likely compete for this position during camp with Bill Nagy and any rookies that are signed, but his experience makes him the leading candidate at this point.
Doug Free, Right Tackle
After signing a four-year $32 million contract in July 2011, Free found himself under a microscope this past season. In 2010, Free graded as one of the top left tackles in the league, according to PFF. He gave up 5 sacks, which ranked him seventh best among full-time LTs. And PFF graded him as THE best run blocking tackle in the league. But in 2011, Free underperformed according to many critics and PFF graded him as the Cowboys' worst starting offensive lineman.
However, this season, Free will be switching to right tackle while Tyron Smith moves to the left tackle spot. This move will definitely be to Free's benefit. The right tackle (or left, if your QB is a southpaw) is generally more of a run blocker. We know how good Free can be while run blocking, and being on the right side will put less pressure on him in pass protection.
At 28 and with 37 starts under his belt, Free is now entering the prime of his career. With a new offensive line coach in town, Free could see his best years over the next few seasons. At this point, expect Free to be a fixture at right tackle for at least the next four seasons.
What to Take Away
The offensive line will be one of the most scrutinized position groups this season, but I expect good things from them. Yes, they are young and fairly inexperienced, but they also have a lot of talent and tremendous upside. And I'd rather my offensive line be young and live with a few growing pains than have an old, crumbling line devouring cap space. The tackle switch between Free and Smith is going to net a positive gain for the line. The two new guard signees should prove quite useful, and Phil Costa will likely have a better season than last. Overall, the line will be better than they were last season
The Cowboys are now much younger on the offensive line than they have been over the past several seasons. Bill Nagy is a young talent to keep an eye on as well. A trip to the IR spoiled a great four game performance he put together last season. Look for him to challenge for a spot at either guard position or possibly center. Also, keep an eye out in the draft for Baylor center Philip Blake. He was a three-year starter and leader of a Baylor o-line that protected Robert Griffin III during his Heisman run. He can also play guard, which gives him the versatility that is highly coveted. He has a private workout planned with the Cowboys this week. Don't be surprised if you see the Boys draft him in the second or third round.
Furthermore, the addition of offensive line coach Bill Callahan may be one of the best offseason moves. He has proven he can coach offensive lineman at the college and professional level. His Wisconsin lines of the early 90s are probably still giving ex-Big Ten defensive linemen nightmares. With a young offensive line, his coaching skills will prove incredibly useful. At the professional level, almost all offensive lineman possess the physical talent necessary, but what separates the good from the bad in the Land of the Big Uglies is coaching. You can bench 500 and be the size of a mountain, but without proper footwork or the ability to pick up blitzes, physical attributes mean nothing in the NFL. Callahan should get this young offensive line in top form by season's end.
There's going to be some growing pains this season, but like I said, this is a good thing overall. We have a lot of talent and youth on the offensive line, and now we have a coach to help mold and maximize that talent. We have a franchise left tackle in Tyron Smith, so hopefully we won't have to worry about that position until next decade. We also have a good core of linemen who will be playing together for the considerable future. Cohesion and chemistry are incredibly important on the offensive line. And letting these youngsters grow up together will be highly beneficial down the road.
So the next time you're watching Tony Romo single-handedly murdering our playoff hopes, you can rest assured that it won't be the offensive line's fault.