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Science Lab: Young O-Line Will Dictate 2022


Patrik [No C] Walker joined the Dallas Cowboys digital media group as a staff writer and media personality in July 2022, having professionally covered the NFL and, more specifically, the Cowboys since 2007.

He most recently did so for CBS Sports by way of 247Sports, where he also spent time delving into collegiate recruiting as well – ultimately becoming well-known for his level of unapologetic objectivity labeled by many as his own unique brand of football "science".

Welcome to "The Science Lab", a place where football facts and in-depth analysis always triumph over feelings.

FRISCO, Texas - Whose line is it anyway? The answer to that question, at one point, was a definitive one for the Cowboys - a stable of metahumans led by the unbridled dominance of Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin with a very capable rotation of players like Ronald Leary and La'el Collins.

Ah, the good not-so-old days.

Martin is the only one of the aforementioned who'll run out of the locker room when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers take the field at AT&T Stadium in the regular season opener on Sept. 11 and, as such, it's a blatant reminder that The Great Wall of Dallas 2.0 is no more, nor has it actually been a thing in Dallas for quite some time now (inaccurate narratives aside); but it's instead been the club asking players like Terence Steele to step up, and he did just that en route to supplanting Collins.

But what of the others, including newcomers like promising rookie Tyler Smith, who recently became the first offensive lineman selected in the first round by the Cowboys since Martin received the call in 2014?

And while the team has now visited with former perennial Pro Bowler and longtime Philadelphia Eagles left tackle Jason Peters, a sign they understand they need assistance at the left edge, in what capacity would Peters take the field this season - starting tackle opposite Steele or swing tackle behind Tyler Smith??

The reality is there are currently more questions surrounding the Cowboys offensive line than there are question marks on The Riddler's jacket and, until further notice, the answers are basically just kabobs of potential dipped in hope and air fried for expediency - seeing as there is no longer any time to cook them in the smoker.

With the latest major injury to Tyron Smith, suffering an avulsion injury in late August that involved his hamstring being torn from the bone near his knee, Martin stands as the lone reminder of what once was and what can again be, but constructing The Great Wall of Dallas 3.0 will not be a small undertaking - at all - and could take years to manifest (as the first two iterations did).

The first step will be seeing if Tyler Smith is ready to hit the ground running at left tackle at the NFL level - the likelihood being he'll get the nod as starter even if Peters is eventually added to the roster - having played the position at Tulsa and taking reps at both LT and LG in offseason programs before being exclusively relegated to the latter in training camp.

The move was well-advised at the time because there was no logical reason to use a first-round pick on a player you'd ask to be a swing tackle when, as evidenced in preseason play, said rookie displayed the mauling potential to likely overtake Connor McGovern as starting left guard.

It's also true, however, that Fate is not without a dark sense of humor. Only hours after head coach Mike McCarthy announced that McGovern would be LG1 if the Cowboys had a regular season game "today", a statement that sent eyebrows around the world north with confusion, Tyron Smith fell to the ground in practice and clutched his knee; and that was that.

McGovern will most certainly take the field as starting left guard this season as Tyler Smith reverts back to tackle in a move that's been all but stamped and sealed by Cowboys leadership.

"I think that's safe to say," owner and general manager Jerry Jones told 105.3FM the Fan on Tuesday.

But apropos to the situation, the first-year lineman is himself recovering from an ankle injury that kept him out of practice and the preseason finale against the Seattle Seahawks before returning to the fold this week with no limitations on his team reps.

"We've got to get him out here and get him practiced here over the next couple of weeks relative to any issue that he had, a little high ankle," Jones added. "We don't think that's serious enough to limit his preparation. Now, what is the case is he hasn't been there at left tackle. He is a rookie, but he is a first-round pick and he deserved to be a first-round pick in my mind.

"So, we knew - we just didn't want it to come earlier than it needed [to]. We knew we had to get ready to replace our left tackle, and he was the pick."

That's the first real admission that the dusk of Tyron Smith's stellar career has arrived, although the team is still expecting him to return before season's end, at which time you can prepare yourself for the possibility of the "hot hand" conversation that could eerily mirror the arc of quarterback Dak Prescott in his 2016 performance that kept Tony Romo on the sideline (even the Cowboys used this comparison, so take the hint).

But, for now, the younger Smith must prove himself and, health-wise, it sounds like he'll be fine for Week 1 after having now been cleared to return to practice.

From there it'll be about seeing McGovern take another step forward alongside Tyler Biadasz and Terence Steele as well, Martin being the only offensive lineman in Dallas that carries absolutely no concerns whatsoever. And lest we forget, there's the matter of swing tackle, a critical position that wasn't resolved in training camp and remains so at the moment.

Losing rookie fifth-round pick Matt Waletzko to a shoulder injury at the outset of camp in July sent shockwaves throughout the competition, and it led to Isaac Alarcon being moved from guard to tackle for a battle with Josh Ball and while Alarcon impressed at times, he wasn't awarded enough game reps to assess his viability in the role before struggling against the Seahawks and leaving with what was determined to be a minor ankle injury; and Ball didn't put a lot of good on film, either.

It'll be interesting to see which version of Peters the Cowboys would potentially acquire because, on one hand, he's a former six-time All-Pro and nine-time Pro Bowler who is likely headed to the Pro Football Hall of Fame but, on the other, he turned 40 years old in January and is no stranger to injury - having missed all but eight games in 2020 due to it and fighting to bounce back to log 15 starts for the Chicago Bears last season.

It feels as if Waletzko's return - albeit at the back end of camp - gives the Cowboys hope at swing tackle in the event they either don't land Peters or if he suddenly declines (there wasn't much evidence of it in 2021), and Matt Farniok flashed in the preseason to a degree that provides a bit of solace at center in the event Biadasz doesn't turn the corner in his development this season.

Still, it's impossible to view Peters as anything other than instant upgrade over every tackle on the current roster, at least before Tyler Smith gets a chance to show what he can do.

One thing is for certain here, and that's the fact neither Erik Williams, Mark Tuinei, Mark Stepnoski, John Gesek, Kevin Gogan nor Nate Newton are running out of the locker room anymore - nor is Larry Allen, Travis Frederick or Tyron Smith (for quite some time).

As the 2022 season prepares to get underway, it's all about staring less in the rearview and more through the windshield toward a fast-approaching horizon of pivotal games this season that could determine the trajectory of several players and coaches in 2023.

But with so much youth at the wheel, it's fair to wonder if an offense that's also trying to sort out questions regarding their wide receiver unit can openly rely on a group that, Martin notwithstanding, will be asked to become Formula 1 drivers with some - for now - having only a provisional driver's license but hoping to take pole position yet again in the NFC East.

Gentlemen, start your engines.

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