It's often said that 'you never want to be the man after THE MAN.'
Troy Hambrick was the Cowboys' leading rusher the year following the departure of Emmitt Smith. Quincy Carter was the team's quarterback the year after Troy Aikman and Raghib Ismail the top receiver on the heels of Michael Irvin.
The point is, it's never easy for an organization to replace a legend. And 'THE MAN,' Travis Frederick retired last month in an emotional statement on the Pro Bowler's Twitter account. Despite the fact that it's not a flashy skill position, or even a spot on the field surrounded by statistics, there are some major decisions ahead for this coaching staff and front office on how to replace Frederick's production.
Thursday's edition of The Draft Show touched on perfect fits for certain teams, and there may be some solid fits for the Cowboys interior line. Most of the picks would need to be made in the middle rounds due to the pressing needs on the defensive side of the football outweighing some of the needs on the interior.
There are a couple of in-house center options like Joe Looney, Connor McGovern, and even Connor Williams, who was touted as a potential center when he finished his college career at Texas. But another option that Dallas could search for a center is the upcoming NFL Draft that is scheduled to take place April 23-25. While the realistic need for a first-round offensive lineman is not necessary, it absolutely should be a focus in the middle rounds. Here are a couple interior value picks that could aid the replacement of the five-time Pro Bowler.
Second Round: Cesar Ruiz, Michigan
Ruiz is one of the safest options in the entire offensive line draft class, even with all the talent at the tackle spot. As a two-year starter for the Wolverines, Ruiz was a Top-3 center in the country in pass protection despite being one of the youngest juniors in the country. While he's not the best athlete in the class, he doesn't make a whole lot of mistakes and holds his weight well at 6-foot-3 and 307-pounds. With his excellent fundamentals and substantial length, Ruiz will be a starter in the league soon and still have room to grow. Even though this may be a little too rich of a pick to spend on a center, it's still a day two option. However, the only way that I really see this being a spot to snag an interior offensive lineman is if Dallas trades backwards from pick 17 in the first round and accumulate an extra two or three day two picks. Which makes it unlikely the Cowboys are shopping around for a lineman while Ruiz is still on the board.
Third Round: Nick Harris, Washington
Pick 82 will really begin the window where the Cowboys could look to fill the center position or add some interior offensive line depth. Harris may be the most talented center available in the
third round and has a high ceiling as a center in the league. A four-year letterman for the Huskies, Harris bounced around from both guard spots before settling in as the starting center his junior season in 2018. Listed at 6-foot-1, he is a bit undersized, but he uses is height to gain leverage at the line of scrimmage and comes off the ball so low that it helps him out, especially in pass protection. The California product doesn't have a ton of versatility because of his build and size which has him pigeon-holed into only a center role in the NFL. Harris really is a project at the next level but projects as a future starter, which puts him right in the same category that Connor McGovern is in after he was selected at pick 90 last year.
Fourth Round: Lloyd Cushenberry III, LSU
One of my favorite middle-round candidates in the entire draft, no matter the position. Cushenberry is a gem in an otherwise lackluster interior offensive line class. He dominated the Senior Bowl and was by-far the highest climbing offensive lineman on my draft board after a 75%-win rate on his snaps in Mobile. Battle tested throughout the SEC schedule, the 6-foot-3 312-pound redshirt junior pushed around talent like South Carolina's Javon Kinlaw and Auburn's Derrick Brown, all while paving the way for one of the most prolific offenses in college football history. There are a couple reasons that would drop Cushenberry to day three including his production drop off from 2018 to 2019 and his below-average pass blocking. But his frame and motor are more than ready for the next level where he will win against some of the best in the league. He would need to be a Joe Philbin special on the offensive line and win some battles in camp, but I like his potential.
Fifth Round: Matt Hennessy, Temple
It's a pretty dangerous thing for so-called 'draft experts' to try and pin exactly what round these day three guys will be selected. But that's exactly what I'm doing with Matt Hennessy in the fifth. Just a two-star recruit out of New Jersey, the eventual Temple product only received offers from Old Dominion, Air Force, Army, and a couple others. Despite his lack of attention out of high school, he was one of the highest rated performers in the country and excelled in each of his three seasons (after taking a redshirt in 2016). This is a guy that has an extremely high football IQ and gets to the second level of blocks a ton because of how efficiently he passes off blocks. Pass-blocking was impressive in each of his starting seasons and he has good balance despite a tall build at 6-foot-4 and 307-pounds. Now, while there are many positives to Hennessy's game, there are a couple glaring negatives. Because of his build, he will not be a scheme fit for everyone in the league and teams may be afraid to take a chance on a prospect like him, especially with the lack of individual workouts due to COVID-19. This only adds to the bigger question of how he can fare one-on-one, because on film, Temple runs the majority of their plays with full slides on the offensive line which presents little evidence that he can win those battles. I've seen some mock drafts taking Hennessy as high as the second round, and I think highly of the former owl (IOL4 on my board), but with the current situation at hand I have a feeling teams are going to put other needs above taking a chance on a high-risk center.
Seventh Round: Zach Shackelford, Texas
At this point in the draft, Dallas is really looking for a future gem of a player that could perform well above his projections coming out of school. The perfect prospect that fits that mold is Texas' Zach Shackelford who stems from the 'Super-Centex' region and Belton High School. The 6-foot- 4 center was a four-year starter for the Longhorns and showed nothing but promise as a potential pro up until his final season in Austin. A bit of a liability in the run game early in his career, he was always reliable protector for Sam Ehlinger, before a drop off his senior season that had him in the bottom quarter of rated centers in the country. If there is any chance that Shackelford would be selected in the draft, rather than signed afterwards, it would be because a team likes what they saw in his first three seasons along with his fundamentals in different blocking schemes run at Texas. If there hasn't been a center picked by Dallas before the seventh round or even the end of the draft, I would not be surprised if the Lone Star center gets a call. Even if it's just for depth.
When looking at these potential replacements, keep this in mind. None of them are supposed to be an exciting and game-changing selection. Travis Frederick performed at the level that very few offensive linemen in history have accomplished and there is really no perfect formula on how to replace his presence both on and off the field.
These are all individuals that could slot in and be the starting center for the Dallas Cowboys some point down the line, along with the three current players I mentioned at the beginning of the article. However, it won't be easy for whoever takes that role because, rookie or not, they have some monumental shoes to fill.
You can watch the rest of Thursday's Draft Show HERE: