IRVING, Texas – This time is the time of the year that scouts sit around and work on projects that they didn't get a chance to complete during the season or because they were working on the draft. I was having one of those days where I just wanted to take a look at the Cowboys' opponents this coming year and see where teams were lining up their players. From the opening night against the Giants to the final game against the Eagles, I took the time to study their depth charts and there was a common thread throughout, which was the number of rookie offensive linemen penciled in the lineup as starters.
The NFL draft is still fresh in all our minds and what we took from that draft was the depth of the offensive linemen as a whole. It was a deep draft at all three of the positions and teams were taking advantage of this depth with some early selections. One of my favorite players in the draft was guard Jonathan Cooper from North Carolina, who was selected by the Arizona Cardinals with the seventh overall pick. He was in my view one of the most athletic guards I had ever scouted. Cooper is listed as the starter on the left side and will get an early test from Jay Ratliff and Jason Hatcher in Week 3 of the preseason.
One of the troubled spots for the Giants the last several years has been the play at right tackle. Each season I wondered when they would replace David Diehl. Well in this past draft, Jerry Reese and Tom Coughlin did just that with Syracuse tackle/guard Justin Pugh, using a selection right behind the Cowboys at 19. In the games I had studied of Pugh, he played left tackle in college but was projected as a guard here. I had some questions about Pugh's upper body strength from some live looks at the Senior Bowl on tape and during the one-on-one pass rush drills. Anthony Spencer will get to test him very early in his rookie season.
The Kansas City Chiefs are a strange team in that you study their roster and you see what appears to be talented players, but in the end, it doesn't add up to wins. I did several games this spring while studying tackle Eric Winston and running the ball was not an issue for this club, but Andy Reid and John Dorsey felt that spending the first overall selection an offensive tackle was necessary. The club was trying to trade left tackle Branden Albert before the draft but could not work out a deal, so he will once again line up as the starter and the top player on my big board, while Eric Fisher of Central Michigan will play his rookie season on the right side. Fisher was a left tackle in college and I have a strong feeling that he will take the same route as Tyron Smith did for the Cowboys after his rookie season and move to that side. Again, another matchup for Anthony Spencer with back to back weeks of working against a rookie tackle.
The San Diego Chargers have really struggled the last several seasons to protect Phillip Rivers and with a new general manager and head coach in the mix, they decided to do something about it. With the 11th overall selection, they tabbed the massive tackle from Alabama, D.J. Fluker, as their man. I wasn't surprised that Fluker went in the first round of the draft, but how early he went. Fluker reminded me of Flozell Adams when I watched him play. He is the starter at right tackle, and like Pugh will draw an early assignment against Spencer and Tyrone Crawford.
In Week 7, the Cowboys travel to Philadelphia to take on an Eagles squad that will either be making progress under first year head coach Chip Kelly or will be searching for answers. In the draft, one of their biggest questions was the shape of their offensive line and how in 2012 it was one of the worst when it came to protection for its quarterbacks. With the fourth overall selection, it was clear which direction they were going in. If Jonathan Cooper was the most athletic guard in the draft, Lane Johnson of Oklahoma held that honor for the tackles. Johnson was the third best tackle on the board and the gap between the top two grew smaller each passing week before the draft. Johnson was a starter at left tackle for the Sooners but will play on the right side for the Eagles who for them, is a welcomed sight.
The following week after the Eagles game is another road trip and this time to Detroit to face the Lions. The Lions don't have a rookie tackle in the lineup but they will have a rookie guard in Larry Warford from Kentucky. On plenty of boards around the league, depending how they rated Justin Pugh and Kyle Long, Warford was the third best guard. The Cowboys were not as high on Warford, likely because a scheme fit, but in my book, he was an impressive player with his size and power. Against quality SEC opponents, he more than held his own. The Lions could have very well got a steal here with Warford and what he can bring to an offensive line. Warford will get the start at right guard and I am very interested to see him and the progress that he would have made to that point in the season because I thought he would have been a fit here.
The final rookie offensive line starter from the 2013 NFL draft that the Cowboys will face comes when they make an early December trip to Chicago. As we are all aware, Oregon guard Kyle Long sat in the third round on the Cowboys board but the Bears took him behind Justin Pugh with the 20th overall selection. There were some questions in my mind where teams were going to play Long who at times was short on power but played with outstanding movement. The Bears are going to play him at right guard which should be fine considering he was a left guard in college. I should remember what new coach Marc Trestman does scheme wise but he has been to so many places and his years in the CFL most likely has changed his direction as a play caller. Aaron Kromer is his offensive coordinator who has a background with Sean Payton, so we will see what they do. Long is outstanding in space and ways to take advantage of those traits of his make the best sense. Screens and sweeps are right now his alley.
When I first started in this league in 1992, there was a time where you brought offensive linemen along slowly and worked them into the lineup, but those days are long gone. Brian Bulaga was a rookie right tackle that started in the Super Bowl for the Packers against the Steelers and was outstanding. I mentioned Tyron Smith and what he had done as a rookie. As mentioned before, this rookie offensive line class had a [embedded_ad] great deal of depth to it and the way that teams have struggled with their line play, they have had no choice but to select these players and put them in the lineup opening day. With the way this Cowboys schedule falls, they will get a first-hand look from the word, "Go."