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Thu., Nov. 27, 2014 2:30 PM to 3:00 PM CST
Spagnola: This Guy On The Cowboys Offensive Line Radar
IRVING, Texas – He threw a couple of guys around this past weekend as if they were Pop Warners.
He looks strong as bull.
Built like one of those top-loading deep freezers.
He’s quiet, but seems quite serious about this game of football.
And to most out there, he’s a forgotten man, and understandably.
But around here, when so many want to throw jab after jab at the Cowboys for failing to do enough this offseason to improve their offensive line, they must snicker quietly to themselves. They know better. They know they’ve got a real shot at multiple upgrades to the interior of this offensive line.
Sure, the Cowboys went out of their way to select an offensive lineman in the first round, center/guard Travis Frederick, the real irony of this draft since one and all wanted the Cowboys to concentrate on offensive linemen, some suggesting to do so with the first three picks. And then when they made doubly sure to draft at least one high-quality offensive lineman, they were chastised for trading down to do so.
Can’t win sometimes.
But here is the most silent shot being loaded, and let me be one of the first to pull back the under-the-radar curtain on …
Yep, him again. He’s still here, hasn’t gone anywhere.
You remember him, right? The rookie free-agent offensive lineman the Cowboys signed last year out of Memphis that owner Jerry Jones just couldn’t wait to tell everyone how excited he was over the acquisition. And I know what you are thinking, and probably were thinking: Why so excited about some rookie free agent? Why, the guy didn’t even get drafted.
Well, I’m sure back in the day there were similar reactions to the rather innocuous rookie free-agent signings of Tony Romo and Miles Austin. Sometimes these guys entering the league as rookie free agents do make it. Some big. (Also see Bill Bates, Mark Tuinei, Nate Newton, Everson Walls, to name a few, and those guys were passed over when the NFL Draft was 12 rounds.) Granted, the odds are long, understood.
But this Leary, he was a little different than most rookie free agents. Here is one pre-2012 draft analysis of him:
Leary possesses next-level size and has been productive and durable on the college level. He'll offer potential for both offensive guard spots and would be attractive to a zone blocking system. He's a solid developmental prospect with a nice upside.
Most had at least a fifth-round grade on him, the modesty attributed to a degenerative knee condition following 2011 surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee. While he played well at Memphis in 2012, actually moving out of necessity from left tackle to right guard, there were longevity concerns over his repaired knee. How long before he might need microfracture surgery? How long would he be able to play?
Those kinds of guys are typically flagged, and don’t go in the top half of the draft. The risk-reward factor is too high on the front side. Fifth round down, you gamble on the talent reward, sort of like buying an underpriced house in need of repairs.
And then once falling out of the draft, as guys like this typically do, tumbling into free agency, then heck yeah, take the rather inexpensive shot. The Cowboys did, and thought enough of Leary after offensive line coach Bill Callahan personally worked him out in Memphis prior to the draft to not only hand him a $9,000 signing bonus, considered high last year when the new CBA put a $75,000 total signing bonus limit on your rookie free-agent pool, but sashayed around that modest sum by guaranteeing him $205,000 of his first-year $390,000 base salary to outbid several other teams for his services.
Now I know Leary eventually landed on the practice squad, but again, at season’s end the Cowboys protected his rights by placing him on the 53-man roster for the final two weeks when another team tried to sign him away. Someone else evidently saw the same potential in Leary that the Cowboys did.
One day toward the end of last season I remember asking veteran defensive end Marcus Spears what he thought of Leary. Spears, never one to B.S, told me Leary was the real deal. That the kid had abnormal power and that he would be a player in this league once he understood the offense – all his assignments and adjustments.
“Physically, he can play,” I remember Spears saying.
So now he’s had an entire year on the practice squad, and I’m told he did not waste those four months of inactive duty. He’s also going to have the benefits of a full offseason in the weight room. Then another round of OTAs, which by the way commence on Tuesday. And lastly, he’ll attend his second NFL training camp, which will include five preseason games, to further nurture his growth.
Oh, and let’s not forget already having been eligible for a second rookie minicamp, held this past weekend, since he was only on the 53-man roster for two weeks. And again, I know the competition this past weekend was not of high quality, what with draft choices, rookie free agents and workout guys going up against him. But Leary’s play certainly was, acting the part of having been here an entire year and just knocking guys off the line of scrimmage even without pads.
That reminded me to ask around. And when I did, boy did heads raise and eyes light up.
They spoke of just how powerful he is, that his “punch” is startling. They spoke of his good feet and how at guard he’d be able to move even though he is this wide-body dude. They spoke of the power he has in his legs. They spoke of how he finishes blocks, just goes after people, something I remember from last summer’s training camp and preseason games when he’d go after someone else’s guy if no one was coming his way.
And this word kept coming up: Nasty.
That’s everything I want in my guard, how about you?
Now, can he play? We’ll see soon enough.
The Cowboys keep saying they will play their best five up front, and the good thing is several guys have position flex. Remember, Frederick played center and guard at Wisconsin. The healthy-again Phil Costa was a guard who moved to center. Mackenzy Bernadeau is a guard with center capability. And now that Doug Free has agreed to reduce his $15 million of base salaries over the next two seasons by half – $3.5 million guaranteed this year and another $3.5 million guaranteed next year if he’s still on the roster after the fifth day of the league year – there should be competition for the starting right tackle spot, too, with Jermey Parnell. And don’t forget a healthy-again Kevin Kowalski, plus this camp will be 2011 fourth-round pick David Arkin’s final shot to prove his worth.
About the only sure thing on this offensive line for 2013, health willing, is Tyron Smith at left tackle, and after last season’s performance most would consider that a good thing.
This whole scene up front as you might detect is quite fluid, giving guys such as Frederick, Leary, Costa, Parnell, Kowalski and who knows, maybe even Arkin, opportunities to compete for starting jobs. And best of all, with the exception of Smith – and likely Frederick, since he’s your first-round pick – no one else (i.e. Bernadeau, Nate Livings, Ryan Cook) has a large enough contract to assure a starting job or even a spot on the final 53-man roster for that matter.
So if you must, go ahead, think and say what you want of what the Cowboys tried to do or didn’t do to makes the needed improvements on this offensive line from last year. But when you do, don’t forget to factor Leary into the equation. Don’t automatically become, uh, somewhat leery, just because he was some lowly practice squader last year.
He’s more than that, believe me. Much more than that.
Seemingly good enough to keep on your radar, too.