Sham: Byron Bell Getting His Turn As Cowboys' Latest Guard of the Week

Sometimes, the best choice is not the first choice.

The Cowboys weren't trying to draft Emmitt Smith in 1990, remember? Their first choice was James Francis, the Baylor linebacker. They just couldn't deal up in the draft to get him. Instead, they moved around to get Smith.

That worked out. You never know.

When the raft of Cowboys' veterans left in the offseason in free agency and retirement, did you know that left guard Ron Leary would be the hardest to replace? So far, almost halfway through training camp, it's working out that way. It may not be that way long, but that's how it is now. And it's a big deal. Leary may have been the least known of the Cowboys' offensive line starters, but that doesn't diminish the importance of the position.

One could hear on Dallas-Fort Worth sports talk radio in the last few weeks (in fact, one did) that it didn't matter who played left guard as long as the three all-stars were out there around him. Oy. That's true, unless you're interested in the success of the running game. And pass protection.

With 20 percent of the preseason games in the books, the identity of the Cowboys' left guard against the Giants on Sept. 10 is completely unknown. As one member of the coaching staff said Monday, that job "is wide open." A Bear is trying to close it this week.

To recap: The team came to Oxnard with La'el Collins having apparently seized his opportunity to move to right tackle. He's still a work in progress (head coach Jason Garrett quipped at his Tuesday media briefing, "We're all developmental players"), but so far so adequate. That left an apparent two-man race for left guard between Chaz Green and Jonathan Cooper.

Green, who was drafted to eventually replace Doug Free at right tackle two years ago, has had injury problems that have left him unable to stay on the field. That has led coaches to be wary of entrusting a big role to him, not because he can't play or because they don't like him, but because (say it with me) the most important ability is availability. Nonetheless, he took most of the first team snaps at left guard the first few days in Oxnard.

Then it was Cooper's turn (and sure enough, Green suffered a shoulder injury that has kept him sidelined a few days). Cooper and Green took first-team turns until Green got hurt, and Cooper started in the Hall of Fame Game and played the first half. A former seventh overall pick by Arizona (and admired by Dallas in the 2013 draft), Cooper has had his own injury history, but not here. He's been OK so far. No Ron Leary, but still in the running.

Now the plot thickens. Joe Looney, the incumbent backup at center and both guards, may have suffered a toe injury of some severity in Canton. No one's saying it, but there is a fear he may be out awhile. Cooper this week has become the top backup center while still taking some left guard snaps. But his value may have shifted if Looney is out a while.

Be clear on this: The Cowboys want the best player to win the left guard job, and they hoped that player would be Cooper. They hoped it because if Green could stay healthy and be the swing backup tackle, as he was last year when he filled in well when Tyron Smith missed some time, they do not prefer to move a starting guard in case of an injury. They want the best five playing and they want starters to be starters.

And since Cooper has not locked down the left guard job AND is at least for now the backup center, the Bear takes center stage. "Bear" is the nickname seven-year veteran Byron Bell was given by his Tennessee Titan teammates the last two years. He's a big man, although, as colleague David Helman points out in his profile of Bell on DallasCowboys.com this week, not as big as he used to be. And that's part of his successful camp so far. In four years in Carolina and two in Tennessee, Bell has started 72 games, including three in the playoffs. He knows the ropes.

Bell has been taking the first-team left guard snaps so far this week after following Cooper there last Thursday. He has what the Dallas coaching staff likes to call position flex. He has also played tackle. And his preferred position?

"Actually I've always wanted to play center," the Bear from Greenville, Texas, smiles. "I like the idea of having my hand on the ball. But I just want to play. Wherever they need me, I'm happy."

The Cowboys signed Bell as a free agent on March 24, so clearly they knew this offensive line business was going to be fluid, and that options were good. They also knew that things happen, like the injuries to Green and Looney.

Green has been working his way back into practice, and he may be ready to line up and compete again sooner rather than later. He may yet make it a race at left guard. Or he may seize the swing tackle position. Or Looney may be OK and Cooper may be the guy. Or Bell may be good enough that he holds the job and Green and Cooper are the backups. Or the left guard may be in camp with another team right now. Half the time it feels like the reason they have training camp is to find out who gets injured.

But right now, with the Rams the preseason opponent on Saturday, Byron "Bear" Bell is the left guard of the week.

Brad Sham is entering his 39th season as The Voice of the Dallas Cowboys. The award-winning broadcaster is an inaugural inductee into the Texas Radio Hall of Fame.

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