IRVING, Texas – Noting that the offensive line didn't perform well as a whole during the 2012 season is now both obvious and unproductive.
As the NFL Draft approaches and free agency begins, the Cowboys must decide specifically which positions need to be upgraded.
Making those choices won't be simple, nor is the answer to the question that could be the key to the Cowboys' success next year: Which offensive linemen can the Cowboys keep, and which need to be replaced to generate different results?
Every starter on the offensive line is signed for at least another season, besides restricted free agent Phil Costa. It could be argued that Costa performed the best of any lineman in his three games, two of which were cut short due to injuries.
Costa played just a series in the opener against the Giants before re-aggravating a back injury. He returned to help lead a staggeringly successful rushing attack against the Ravens, who allowed more rushing yards to the Cowboys (227) than they had against any opponent since arriving in Baltimore. That was Costa's only full game, as an ankle injury in the second quarter against the Panthers a week later ended his season.
Backup center Ryan Cook performed admirably after arriving just before the opener and playing in 13 games. But retaining Costa makes sense, considering the Cowboys amassed the 31st-ranked rushing attack this season with a line consisting primarily of Cook, tackles Tyron Smith and Doug Free and guards Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings.
Smith isn't going anywhere, after the 22-year-old was drafted in the first round in 2011 and had to switch over to left tackle. He wasn't perfect by any means, but the Cowboys averaged 5.22 yards per rush going behind left tackle.
Every other position on the line is much more uncertain. The contracts of each player will play a substantial role in deciding the future of these players, but it wouldn't be surprising to see anyone on the line outside of Smith lose their starting job.
Pro Football Focus ranked Livings as the “stud” among the group of Cowboys offensive linemen, but there were obvious times he struggled. It's possible Bernadeau could be more useful to develop because of his position flexibility and younger age. Deciding which guards should stick around will undoubtedly make an impact on the next few seasons, and may be the most substantial question that needs to be answered.
The Cowboys also need to decide if or when it's time to give up on Free, who struggled through the season, picked up the most penalties on the team and eventually platooned with swing tackle Jermey Parnell.
The draft could provide an answer to some of these questions, but even if the Cowboys selected an offensive lineman early, deciding how he fits in, where he fits in and who he will replace will be both tricky and significant.
It's possible one change can alter the production on the offensive line. It's more widely assumed that it wasn't just one player responsible for the lack of effectiveness, in which case one change might not make the difference the Cowboys are looking for.
So the Cowboys face a tough predicament. If they sit by with the status quo, not much change should be expected. If they make the wrong decision in evaluating which player needs replacing, it could only mean more frustration watching a meager rushing attack and a frantic quarterback.