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Spagnola: A Healthy Green Just Might Solve Offensive Line Dilemma

OXNARD, Calif. – This past Monday, while walking off the practice field in a much-welcomed full sweat, some lady politely yelled at the big guy, equal parts encouragement and wish, "Hey, stay healthy!"

         "Got to," the big guy said.

         How timely.

         This was Chaz Green's first day practicing in pads since suffering a shoulder injury on July 31, nearly two weeks ago before the team traveled to Canton, Ohio. The third-year offensive lineman missed the Hall of Fame Game. He then missed this past Saturday's second preseason game, the one in Los Angeles against the Rams.

         Unfortunately for the Cowboys' third-round pick out of Florida in 2015, this has been his NFL curse. He can't stay healthy. Between the draft and the start of OTAs his rookie season, Green suffered a hip injury requiring surgery. He was placed on PUP, and while activated in late December, he never played in a game.

         Then in 2016 a foot injury at the beginning of the season and a back injury late in the year caused him to miss 12 more games. In fact, the back injury turned out to be a herniated disk, requiring surgery at the end of the season. That in turn caused him to miss most of this offseason's workouts, spending his time rehabbing from the microdiscectomy surgery.

         That caused the Cowboys to scuttle their previous offensive line plans. See, when veteran right tackle Doug Free decided to retire, the idea was for Green to be the heir apparent. But since he wasn't available in the offseason, the Cowboys moved one-time tackle in college La'el Collins from guard to right tackle. That is how they've played it the first four weeks of training camp.

         So then the idea was for Green to compete for the starting left guard spot, vacated by Collins' move to tackle and the loss of Ron Leary in free agency. The Cowboys were looking for five good men on the offensive line.

         But right on cue, just a week into camp with the Cowboys really wanting Green to win that starting left guard job, he suffers the strained rotator cuff in practice. That opened the competition door for Jonathan Cooper, the seventh pick in the 2013 draft by Arizona. But injuries and inactivity had so far derailed his NFL career as well. Also opened the door for seventh-year veteran Byron Bell, signed in the offseason after a foot injury caused the one-time Carolina and Tennessee starter (72 of 78 games played in his first five NFL seasons) to miss all of last season with Tennessee.

         Let the competition begin. And is ongoing.

         "It's a competition, and it will continue to be a competition," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett says of the wide-open left guard spot. "We're going to give everybody an opportunity to show what they can do. … We're going to give (Byron Bell) a great chance, we're going to give Jonathan Cooper a chance, we're going to give Chaz Green a chance, give Joe Looney a chance when he gets healthy. We're going to give off those guys a chance."

         Great, but by time Green returned to practice on Monday, an offensive line dilemma had developed for what has been the best offensive line in the NFL. Collins was, and somewhat still is, suffering growing pains making the transition from guard coming off an injury-shortened 2016 season to right tackle.

         Then, without Green, the Cowboys were volleying back and forth at left guard with Bell and Cooper, until Looney, last year's backup guard/center went down with a toe injury, returned this week. So the Cowboys began playing Cooper at backup center, testing to see if he, too, could play both spots. And that gave Bell a prime chance.
         But Bell has struggled, not only at guard but at tackle, too. Same with Emmitt Cleary, a backup there last year.

         Now with the Cowboys heading toward Saturday's third of five preseason games, this one against Indianapolis at AT&T Stadium after they break camp here on Friday, the Cowboys are looking for a starting left guard and a backup swing tackle. And though this would seem remote considering time invested, what would be the chances if Collins struggles at right tackle of being moved back to guard? Then a starting right tackle would be needed.

         Well, if the Cowboys had their druthers, Green would be the guy – at all three spots, sort of a Rubik's Cube puzzle the Cowboys must solve.

         But then there are those injuries, right, getting in his way.

         That is why Green was so grateful on Monday to be back out there.

         "It felt great man, felt great, get a full practice in, get some work in," Green said. "I want to be out there, this is what I do for a living. I want to be out there. Got to practice to get better at my craft, so it was good to get in a full day."

         Here then is where everything stands this week: With Looney back in practice taking over backup center, Cooper moved over to guard with the first team. And Green, well, he's pulling double-duty. The Cowboys are trying to get him ready to play guard and tackle. He began this week working with the second team at left guard and left tackle. And when Tyron Smith was limited in the previous practices, it was Green then working with the first team at left tackle.

         So, Chaz, what are you? A guard or a tackle?

         "One play at a time, wherever I'm at, just do that job and play the best that I can," Green said of trying to master both guard and tackle. "My mindset is just that, you know. Take it one play at a time, and execute it to the best of my ability."

         While the move of Green might seem somewhat curious, the Cowboys subscribe to putting your best five linemen out there. So doesn't matter that Green played solely tackle at Florida. Said he only played guard one time, a half his senior year against Vanderbilt "because we just ran out of bodies and they put me in there, but that's it."

         The Cowboys desperately need Green to play well and stay healthy. And at this point they have to figure where he's most valuable: Starting at left guard or manning the backup swing tackle job, one of utmost importance, especially considering Smith's balky back.

         And this is where the whole ordeal gets complicated. If Cooper can play adequately at guard, then Green will handle the backup tackle spots. But if Cooper struggles, then the Cowboys might just say, Chaz you're our starting left guard. But doing so leaves them without a swing tackle, that is unless Bell or Cleary pick up the pace over the final three preseason games where they have struggled. Or tell Green to be prepared to play tackle, too, just in case.

         Come Saturday, Green figures to play in his first game of any kind since Oct. 2 of last year at San Francisco, where he was starting his second consecutive game in place of an ailing Smith. That's a long time between games.

         "Man, I'm really looking forward to it," Green said. "Be back home, get out there and get some good ball in.

         "There is an opportunity out here all over the field. Just trying to focus on what I can."

         And, as the lady aptly wished, stay healthy.

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