FRISCO, Texas – Now the hard work begins.
And these should be the Cowboys' top three priorities.
Obviously, setting the course at the quarterback position. Heck, we all know that, needing to find a bipartisan resolution to the Dak Prescott contract dilemma, but also making decisions on where to head with the backup spot since Andy Dalton also is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent, and if there will be a third QB on the 53-man roster. And if so, who might that be?
Next, of course, do what's needed in free agency and the NFL Draft to fill cracks on a defense that only a season ago was ranked ninth in total yards and 11th in rushing defense, with the most important step already having been taken by hiring Dan Quinn as the defensive coordinator.
Then third, and this one is ultimately important but at the same time a tad tricky from a timing standpoint:
Repair the offensive line. Right?
And did not Super Bowl LV reinforce this priority with the Tampa Bay defensive front exposing a group of Kansas City Chiefs backups, and in some cases backups to the backups, on an offensive line that brought the defending champs to their knees.
Why, the Chiefs offense could not even score a touchdown with the next greatest quarterback the NFL will ever know, Pro Bowler Patrick Mahomes, along with a Pro Bowl wide receiver (Tyreek Hill) and a Pro Bowl tight end (Travis Kelce).
Ah, and maybe because they did not have their Pro Bowl left tackle, Eric Fisher, out with a torn Achilles, his absence causing a debilitating game of musical chairs on their front five.
The Cowboys know the dangers of trying to survive with inexperienced backups on an offensive line the entire 2020 season.
Think about this: A combination of Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith, Pro Bowl right guard Zack Martin and potential Pro Bowl right tackle La'el Collins missed a grand total 37 of 48 potential starts. Plus, take into consideration in two other games, Martin played only a combined 17 snaps before departing with a concussion and then the significantly strained calf muscle. Plus-plus, the veteran tackle the Cowboys signed as the presumptive backup swing tackle, Cameron Erving, missed another 10 games.
And you wonder why the Cowboys could not run the football with any amount of consistency. You wonder why the Cowboys' four starting quarterbacks suffered 44 sacks, the second-highest total since the 50 in 2005.
Now, here is the good news: Martin should have no problem returning from the calf issue causing him to miss the final five games of the season. So good at right guard.
Left guard Connor Williams was the only presumed preseason starter to not only start every game, but play 99.9 percent of the offensive snaps, missing just one in the season opener. Good to go there.
And at center, had rookie Tyler Biadasz not suffered a hamstring injury during the pregame warmups before the Pittsburgh game, he likely would have remained the starter for the final eight games of the season after previously haven taken over for Joe Looney, who became the starter initially in 2020 after the retirement of Pro Bowler Travis Frederick.
Got all that?
That brings us to the tackle positions, the tricky part going forward.
Collins, after a Pro Bowl-caliber season in 2019, missed the entire 2020 offseason and training camp trying to rehab a back and hip injury, and then the entire season, succumbing to surgery to repair the hip socket.
Smith, trying to fight through what initially had been called a pinched nerve in his neck, fought valiantly to play two full games before the pain actually caused by a herniated disk in his neck violating his spinal cord required surgery.
Will those two staples at tackle be ready to go for 2021? Will they return to playing at a Pro Bowl level?
More importantly, how soon will the Cowboys be able to determine all that?
Reasons being, free agency begins March 17. The NFL Draft starts on April 29. Between now and then, how much and how accurately can these two guys be evaluated since there will be no football activity taking place. Organized Team Activities usually don't start until mid-May, and with COVID-19 protocols still hovering overhead, who knows if those 10 sessions over three weeks will be permitted? Or minicamps?
Now, the good thing is, since Collins and Smith are rehabbing from surgeries, they will be allowed to continue doing so with the trainers and strength and conditioning coaches during the offseason. So the Cowboys should have a real good idea of where each is physically.
And from my understanding, both are progressing well, that the surgeries have relieved the pain each had been enduring. Collins will turn 28 in July, prime age for an offensive lineman.
As for Smith, he's 30, still prime age or an offensive lineman, even though this will be his 11th season in the NFL. So many are worried about the seven-time Pro Bowler breaking down physically. He had missed three games in each of four seasons from 2016-19 before the 14 games in 2020. But you know what? He also became a Pro Bowler in each of those four seasons.
My thought is I'd rather have a healthy, Pro Bowl-caliber Smith for 13 games a year than an alternative, no matter how much younger.
These evaluations will be critical since one mock draft is projecting five offensive tackles being selected in the top 20. In another, our Bucky Brooks has four OTs projected in his top 21. That means a presumed good tackle would be available to the Cowboys at No. 10, which another mock has one of its five offensive tackles in the top 20 going to the Cowboys.
To me, that would be a wasteful pick that high if Smith and Collins are good to go.
You say groom one for the future?
Cowboys can't continue to invest such high resources in the offensive line based on just-in-case scenarios with so many other needs. Like, pick any of five positions on defense: defensive tackle, end, linebacker, cornerback and safety. Hmmm, that about cover it?
In fact, this must enter into their tackle thinking when it comes to their backup swing tackle, assuming Smith and Collins are ready to go this season. Immediately move Martin from guard out to tackle since 2019 third-round pick Connor McGovern, who spent his entire rookie season on injured reserve, showed he is a highly-capable guard while starting eight of 14 games played in 2020.
No more fooling around with aging veterans or unproven, undrafted alternatives. Martin's got to be that third guy.
That would allow another year of grooming for either Terence Steele, the undrafted rookie who started 14 of 16 games at right tackle, and/or tackle Brandon Knight, the undrafted rookie in 2019 who ended up starting nine of the 13 games he played in 2020.
Then the Cowboys could qualify drafting an offensive tackle in like the middle rounds for the future while knowing they have three quality tackles on the roster.
And from a salary-cap standpoint, while Smith's base salary this year is $10.5 million, parting ways with him would sink $8.9 million of restructured bonus money prorated over the next four seasons immediately into dead money. As for Collins, he just signed a five-year, $50 million extension last year, and his $8.55 million base for 2021 is guaranteed the fifth day of this league year. His prorated bonus currently carries $12.2 million in dead money.
So you see, as I keep emphasizing on why it's been taking so long to sign Dak to a long-term deal, these contracts are no joke. We ain't playing with Monopoly money here. And if we were, this isn't buying Reading Railroad. This is putting up a hotel on Boardwalk.
The Cowboys just have to be right on their tackle position evaluations. And we'll know exactly what they are thinking by what they do or don't do in free agency and the draft.
Because as we've witnessed, you just can't take a _chance_ out there. Not again.