The Dallas Cowboys‘ season thus far in 2013 has been plagued by inconsistency. Seemingly every good win is accompanied by an even uglier loss. Why? Obviously, it’s gotta be because of either Tony Romo or Jerry Jones, right? After all, that’s the easiest route to take when searching for reasons as to why an NFL team isn’t enjoying immense success — just blame either the owner or the starting QB. Or both.
Well, there’s always more to it than that, even considering how polarizing Romo and Jones are. As the old football adage goes, “it all starts up front”, and that’s exactly where the Cowboys’ problems lie.
Offensively, the Cowboys have been averaging 77 yards rushing per game, good for 28th in the league. The other side of the ball is just as bad, as the Cowboys have been giving up more than 126 yards rushing per game, also good for 28th in the league. Sure, injuries haven’t helped (both Ryan Cook and Brian Waters are out for the year), but it’s become painfully evident the Cowboys need to address both offensive and defensive lines in the 2014 NFL Draft.
This has been a long time coming for the Cowboys’ offensive line. The classic Cowboys routine had become spending high draft picks on skill positions players or defense, then piece an offensive line together via free agency and mid- to late-round draft picks. Only recently have the Cowboys begun to focus higher draft picks on the O-line, with LT Tyron Smith (ninth overall, 2011) and C Travis Frederick (31st overall, 2013) being the primary examples.
Both Frederick and Smith look like long-term guys, especially the latter. The incredibly athletic Smith is on his way to becoming one of the games elite blindside protectors. But aside from those two, there’s not much more to get excited about.
If I were running the show in Dallas, I’d focus on taking one of the top two guards in this year’s deep draft class: either Gabe Jackson (Mississippi St.) or Cyril Richardson (Baylor). Both are tremendous run graders in the mold of former Cowboys great Larry Allen, and will also make an impact in the porous pass protection. Clemson’s Brandon Thomas is a mid-round sleeper to keep an eye on as well.
Taking a tackle early is also an option. There’s a little bit of freedom with this possibility, because a rookie tackle wouldn’t necessarily have to step in and start right away. Serviceable RT Doug Free will be in the last year of a two-year deal, and though Jones may not want to pony up the $3.5 million owed, he could at least present the Cowboys with an option while a rookie gets acclimated to the speed of the NFL.
Like I said earlier, the defensive line needs addressed as well, and it’s arguably as pressing as the O-line. Injuries to guys like Anthony Spencer, DeMarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff, Tyrone Crawford and Benn Bass have totally depleted the Cowboys of both depth and talent. But getting those guys healthy won’t be enough. Ware isn’t getting younger, Spencer was on a one-year deal and might not be brought back, and Ratliff has already been cut.
Yes, the play of DT Jason Hatcher has been impressive, but he’s 31 and in the last year of his deal as well.
Don’t be surprised to see the Cowboys target a good young three-tech defensive tackle early in the draft (potentially find a steal with the injured Dominique Easley in round two?), re-sign Spencer and Hatcher on the cheap, and add some intriguing pass-rushers in the mid- to late-rounds.
Adding more depth and talent to the trenches won’t be the popular or sexy draft-day picks that the Cowboys and their fans both love, but it’s not always about winning the headlines — it’s about winning games. To do that, you have to have a strong rushing attack offensively and be able to stop the run defensively. It’s not gospel, but it might as well be. Like they say, it all starts up front.