IRVING, Texas – Andre Gurode, Al Johnson, Jacob Rogers and Tyron Smith are the only offensive linemen the Cowboys have selected in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft since 2000.
Only one of those, Smith, was taken in the first round. Now, 13 years later, the Cowboys find themselves finishing a season 31st in the league in both rushing yards and attempts, without any running back eclipsing the 700-yard mark.
Yet offensive coordinator Bill Callahan seemed content last week keeping the same line in place. Only Callahan knows if he was saying that simply to raise the spirits and confidence of his struggling linemen.
"It's interesting because a lot of these guys when you're looking at film, you say, 'Well, we didn't get that block exactly the way we want it,'" Callahan said. "Well, that particular player, he might have had a toe injury or knee injury that he's working through or shoulder injury he's going through, so you've got to take that into account.
"You watch these guys go on the field day to day and do what they do and the manner that their body's in in terms of injury, I love these guys. I just want to keep coaching them, and whatever we add to our team, we add, but I love the group that I've got right now."
Nate Livings fought through an obvious knee injury and Mackenzy Bernadeau entered the season limited after hip surgery. Callahan didn't get into specifics regarding which players were hurt or how badly they were injured during the season, and it's even more difficult to gauge how bad those players were hurt, considering Livings, Bernadeau and Doug Free – all three of whom could be replaced next season –played in every game.
If they were all injured, credit their will to continue on. Injury will undoubtedly affect productivity, but by the end of the season, players across the NFL are all fighting through aches and pains. If they're on the field, they're held accountable, and the Cowboys linemen didn't meet expectations. The question shouldn't be "if" one of these players should be replaced, but "which."
That decision doesn't need to be made until the preseason, following a draft that should include an early pick on an offensive lineman. It could be decided before then if Free is a casualty of the team's cap, but executive vice president Stephen Jones said Monday he wouldn't rule anything out with Free, even the possibility of moving him to guard.
If that happens, it could kick Bernadeau or Livings out of a starting spot, though Bernadeau is also capable of playing center.
"It goes back to what people don't know, but he and Livings played hurt all year," Jones said at the Combine. "They were playing through injuries. They had to miss time, but they'd come back and play. Bernadeau, in spite of being injured, didn't miss anything." [embedded_ad]
Bernadeau had been hurt since the offseason, but even Jones admitted most teams have players dealing with injuries. Most teams, though, didn't finish toward the bottom third of the league in every rushing statistic. And most teams weren't protecting a pressured quarterback who threw 19 interceptions, many in an attempt to evade a rush.
The Cowboys began a commitment to a revamped line by selecting Smith in the first round two years ago. It was the first time this millennium they pledged to build up front offensively by using a top pick on a lineman. They switched Smith to left tackle and shifted Free back to right tackle to see if that was an option for the future. It didn't go as planned.
Now the commitment needs to continue after a year of futility on the line. With so many capable offensive linemen to choose from in this year's draft, it would be a mistake to pass on one or two in the first two rounds.