On many NFL teams, the attention is all on the glamorous positions. The quarterback, the playmaking wide receivers, the crunching linebackers, the sack artists and intercepting ballhawks. Those big guys who line up in front of the offense are largely ignored.
But for the Dallas Cowboys, there may be no brighter spotlight this season than the one on the offensive line. It started in 2011, when the team made a very atypical move and drafted tackle Tyron Smith with the ninth overall pick. Then things got really interesting when Jason Garrett rolled the dice and went with a youth movement up front, jettisoning longtime O line stalwarts like Andre Gurode, Marc Columbo, and Montrae Holland.
That did not work out too well as, outside of Smith, the made-over line struggled. The team even had to bring back Holland after Bill Nagy broke his leg. The consensus is that the Dallas offensive line was one of the weaknesses of the team in 2011, probably ranking just behind the secondary.
The focus is even more intense in 2012. Glaring weaknesses in the secondary were aggressively addressed in the offseason with the signing of well-regarded free agent Brandon Carr and then the daring move to trade up for top defensive rookie Morris Claiborne. But, to the disappointment of many fans, the only moves made to improve the offensive line was to sign a couple of rather pedestrian free agent guards, Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau. Not a single draft pick was used to help the offensive line (although this does disregard the fact the Cowboys used three picks in 2011 to draft linemen).
Now, the Cowboys are trying to figure out what it has up front, especially at center and guard. And the one player who did excel, Tyron Smith, is moving to a new position.
Further complicating things, it was announced on the first day of pre-camp that Bernadeau is starting the season on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) roster, along with backup C/G Kevin Kowalski. He had hip surgery after he signed with the Cowboys. It was anticipated he would be the starting right guard, but now that is at least questionable as he continues to rehab from the injury.
All of this means that the offensive line is the greatest unknown quantity on the field. They may struggle as they did last year, and if they do, it could be very hard for the Dallas Cowboys to improve on the 8-8 record from 2011.
Here is how things seem to be forming up at this early point:
Tackle: The starters here are set. With Tyron Smith, who was simply outstanding as a rookie RT flipping over to guard Tony Romo's blindside, Doug Free flops back to the right side. While Smith's exceptional performance (he was graded by Pro Football Focus as the fourth best tackle in the league as a rookie) gives the team faith he can make a successful move to the left side, Free had a down year in 2011 after a very impressive 2010.
The hope is that Free will return to form. There were also persistent rumors that he had some kind of nagging injury, but I, at least, have never seen anything that confirms that. The primary backup for both sides is Jermey Parnell, who was signed to a three year contract in the off-season. This indicates that the team has some faith in him if he should be needed.
In 2011, the Cowboys made it through the year with just those three tackles on the roster. This seems a bit of a risky approach. If the team should decide to go with a fourth tackle on the final 53, the candidates are UDFAs Jeff Adams, Levy Adcock, and Tyrone Novikoff, and free agent Pat McQuistan. With no actual hitting allowed in the offseason under the new CBA, there is not a lot of data to judge if any of these four would be a worthwhile backup to retain.
McQuistan has been described as a player brought in to try to give the backup quarterbacks some protection in the pre-season games, but not as a serious candidate to make the final roster. If the team does keep a fourth tackle, it may be on the practice squad, which would rule McQuistan out.
Guard: Dallas cut ties for good with Holland and Kyle Kosier, who were aging but did provide experience and could help the younger players. Their loss was supposed to be addressed by the Livings and Bernadeau signings, but there has always been a great deal of fan discontent over this. Neither were exactly stellar performers with their past teams. Despite this, Dallas actively pursued both of them.
The belief appears to be that the pair were in rather unfavorable situations in the past, but it is a rather dubious assumption that their games will be improved by joining a unit that was struggling last year. The team also has a lot of faith in new offensive coordinator/line coach Bill Callahan to "coach them up", but that only works if the ceilings for the players is high enough to work with.
Now, with Bernadeau an uncertain prospect, the team is back to looking at the players who were a bit underwhelming last year. Bill Nagy was a scrapper before he went down with his broken leg, but the perception was that he was getting muscled around. He was the team's seventh round choice in 2011, so it is not surprising that he might need another year of development. What is harder to understand is the fourth round pick from that year, David Arkin, not being active for a single game. His status with the team would seem to be a bit tenuous.
One guard prospect that seems to be well regarded is UDFA Ronald Leary. The team had a third or fourth round grade on him, but he was not drafted due to concerns about a degenerative knee condition. Leary insists he is healthy and can play for several years. He may get his chance to prove himself. Less heralded is UDFA Harlan Gunn. He is an unknown quantity, but there is certainly a chance to impress and fight your way onto the roster this year.
Center: Phil Costa is saddled with the image of his snaps sailing over Tony Romo's head, or obviously coming at Romo before he was ready for the ball. He unquestionably had some rocky moments early in the season. But he did seem to improve as the year went along, and for now he is the incumbent. This does not create a lot of joy in the fan base, who focus on those bad snaps early in the year and, in many cases, were clearly hoping the Cowboys would draft a center this year. Nagy and Kowalski are the apparent backups here. With Kowalski missing some camp, Nagy has an opportunity to solidify his spot on the team.
This is a very uncertain situation. Jason Garrett gives every sign of believing that he and Callahan can make this unit work. But he expressed a similar belief that the young line that the team put on the field last year was going to be up to the task, and they were shaky at best for much of the season. This year, we get to find out just how much difference a full offseason of conditioning and coaching can make for them. The success or failure of this unit may be the biggest determinant of the success or failure of the team as a whole.
It is a little scary.