Heading into last season, one of the biggest questions facing the Dallas Cowboys was how well an offensive line that was dubbed a patchwork unit at best, would fare in protecting starting quarterback Tony Romo.
Well, that group succeeded in keeping Romo on the field, but the Dallas signal caller was sacked 36 times, tying him for sixth most in the NFL. And considering that Dallas invested $108 million in Romo during the off-season, upgrading the offensive line to protect the most important man on the roster should be a top priority for America’s Team, right?
Well, not exactly. On one hand, Dallas somewhat addressed its O-line deficiencies by drafting Wisconsin center Travis Frederick in the first round. Frederick, who early on was dubbed Dallas’ new starting center by owner Jerry Jones, has earned high marks for his work during the early phases of the preseason
But he is a first-round pick and because of that status alone should be able to contribute as a rookie. And while the Cowboys deserve credit for taking an O-lineman in the first round, the fact Frederick was the only one Dallas drafted is more than a bit disheartening.
That’s because depth along the offensive front has been an issue the past few seasons. So, when a number of linemen expected to see heavy reps in camp were injured, like Nate Livings, slated to be Dallas’ starting left tackle but will now miss the rest of camp after having knee surgery, and Mackenzy Bernadeau, the likely starter at right guard, who missed off-season workouts recovering from shoulder surgery and has also missed time due to injury early in camp, it left the Cowboys in a familiar place, scrambling to find replacements.
Backup tackle Jermey Parnell, a starter at right tackle near the end of last season who also filled in at left tackle, has also missed time with a hamstring injury as have reserve guards Ray Dominguez (shoulder) and Kevin Kowalski (knee).
One starter on the who hasn’t been discussed much has been left tackle Tyron Smith, Dallas’ first-round pick in 2011 and that’s not a bad thing. He is an absolute rock at left tackle and the closest to a sure thing the Cowboy o-line has.
At the other tackle spot, Doug Free, who Parnell outplayed for a starting role late last season, has also been turning heads. Free had underachieved almost from the moment he was signed to a four-year, $32 million deal in July 2011, including $17 million in guaranteed money. In 2012, he was a lightning rod among both fans and media because of a string of pre-snap penalties and all-around poor play.
And given how badly he performed last season, there was some thought to Free not returning in 2013. But the Northern Illinois product renegotiated his contract, remaining in Big D for less money and has earned rave reviews for his performances during camp. In 2010, Free definitely showed that he had the talent to be a steady performer for the Cowboys and if he can revert to that form which earned him that big contract, then one huge question mark on this line is quickly nullified.
With Livings out, Ronald Leary, a practice squad player in 2012, has filled in at left guard, earning favorable reviews thus far. The former Memphis Tiger can play either guard spot and now that Livings is out for the rest of camp, Leary really gets an extended opportunity to shine and not just make the 53-man roster, but also to possibly push Livings entirely out of the picture.
Phil Costa, who started 16 games at center in 2011 but played just three last fall because of back and ankle issues, is healthy and got a contract extension in the off-season. With Frederick already penciled in at center, it looks like Costa will be a depth guy there and could also see time at guard, where he played in college at Maryland.
However, the future of guard David Arkin remains uncertain at best. Arkin, a fourth-round pick in the 2011 draft, has yet to appear in a single regular-season game for Dallas as he has been a weekly fixture on the inactive list come game day. He had performed well early on in camp but undrafted free agent Dennis Godfrey has been getting snaps over him recently, which may or may not signify that Arkin’s time as a Cowboy could be ending soon.
It’s a similar story for Ryan Cook, who has missed all of camp due to injury after starting 11 games at center in 2012 when depth issues forced Dallas to trade a seventh-round pick to Miami for him. Like Arkin, Cook might not have a spot on the 53 come early September.
Last season, many fans and media wondered if the Cowboy offensive line could keep Tony Romo healthy all year. In the end, they did that. But if this unit allows Romo to get hit and sacked as much in 2013, will similar results follow? It’s tough to say but one thing’s for sure, this offensive line remains one of the bigger question marks in Dallas, further proof that some things never change with America’s Team.