With training camp right around the corner, DallasCowboys.com is taking a look at the outlook of each position group in a 10-part series, continuing today with the offensive line.
*Top of the chart: Tyron Smith *
He's the obvious choice here. He's almost the only choice here. Really, there's not another spot on this line where a player can be guaranteed to start Week 1. Smith moved from the right side to the left last season, and growing pains are going to come for any then-21-year-old player making that switch. The struggles at other spots of the line certainly outweighed his, though.
Another year of experience and an offseason of strength and conditioning should help Smith out more than the other linemen. It wouldn't be surprising to see him take a noticeable leap in production this year. The guards right now are both still dealing with injuries before the season, Travis Frederick hasn't played a snap and Doug Free and Jermey Parnell are still in a competition for the starting spot.
Need to see more:
*Across The Line *
There really isn't a single spot to single out that the Cowboys don't need more from. Phil Costa played well in spurts but wasn't healthy all season, the guards weren't healthy all year and struggled and Free's play worsened to the point that he got in a rotation with Parnell. Smith is the bright spot on the line, but the Cowboys need him to be dominant now. Cohesiveness is necessary on the line, and there wasn't much of it last season. The linemen need to do a better job of getting push on the line to develop a better running attack. There's a reason Tony Romo was forced to throw almost 100 more times than he had in any season prior.
If I had to pick one spot to see more from, I'd go with Free. There was a reason the Cowboys once paid him the way they did, before he was forced to accept a pay cut heading into this season. The Cowboys would have just cut him if they thought he couldn't play the position. They clearly still see upside, and even with the heavily reduced contract number, Free needs to demonstrate that he can suffice at the spot to earn a starting job.
Still need to know … Travis Frederick
Obviously, there are lots of things we still need to know about the line. From left to right, there are plenty of question marks but let's focus now on the middle. The Cowboys drafted the rookie from Wisconsin in the first round, giving us all the assumption he will be ready to take over at center when the season begins. Phil Costa's 2012 season was hard to dissect, considering he missed nearly all of the year with back and ankle injuries. But he did have a stellar performance against the eventual Super Bowl champion Ravens. Still, Frederick's draft status suggests he will be the starter – at some spot. Center is most likely but he could also swing out to guard if that proves to be a better fit for the entire offensive line.
Don't forget about … Kevin Kowalski
With all the talk about Frederick and Costa, plus last year's veteran starter in Ryan Cook, third-year pro Kevin Kowalski is easily forgotten. The soft-spoken lineman didn't play a snap last year, missing most of the year with an ankle injury. But he was active to play towards the end of the season. When healthy, he seems to be a better option than David Arkin as the versatile guard/center combo. Now Costa could assume that role on game days, but Kowalski has something about him that is intriguing to the Cowboys. He's gotten himself ready to play on short notice three times during his 2011 rookie season. Kowalski isn't flashy, but productive. If he can figure out a way to stay healthy, he'll be right in the mix when it's all said and done.