* FRISCO, Texas –*Well, I'll be, when it comes to the Cowboys offensive line, believe it or not, it's basically same time next year.
Around this time last year, between the NFL Scouting Combine and the owners meetings, word started spreading of veteran right tackle Doug Free's plans to retire. Sure enough, the day of the NFL Draft, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones made it official:
Free is being placed on reserve/retired.
Meaning the Cowboys, after losing starting left guard Ronald Leary in free agency, needed to fill two spots on arguably the best offensive line in the NFL: left guard and right tackle. Plus, backup swing tackle.
Basically, the Cowboys had two choices to make at right tackle:
One, could they count on the oft-injured Chaz Green, who finished the 2016 season on injured reserve and had microdiscetomy surgery in the offseason to repair a herniated disk, to return in time to take over at right tackle?
Or, should they move La'el Collins, who spent his rookie season at left guard before a foot injury caused him to abdicate the starting spot to Leary four games into the 2016 season, back to the tackle position he had played at LSU?
But if they did that, would Jonathan Cooper be sufficient enough to start at left guard? Or maybe even Green?
That was their dilemma.
Well, the Cowboys decided they wanted their best five offensive linemen on the field, and since Collins had worked the entire offseason at right tackle with the training staff conservatively bringing back Green from surgery, they decided to leave Collins at right tackle and let Green and Cooper battle for the starting guard spot, with potentially veteran Byron Bell becoming the backup swing tackle if Green won the job.
Green won. He started the first three games before hip problems knocked him out of the starting box. Cooper took over, never to relinquish the starting job, and when Green returned, he was the backup swing tackle.
Soooo … here we go again, with another one of those who's-on-first offensive line dilemmas.
This time there are two new characters in this riddle. The Cowboys plugged gaping depth holes on the offensive line last week in free agency, signing New England backup free-agent lineman Cameron Fleming to a financially conservative one-year contract, and then got Cleveland backup guard/center Marcus Martin on a one-year, veteran-benefit minimum deal. Green still is here. So is practice squader Kadeem Edwards. And Collins, who played much better the second half of last season in his transition back to tackle, still has position flex.
Immediately it's been assumed that the Cowboys signed the fifth-year Fleming to start at right tackle, thus kicking Collins back inside to left guard. Maybe, but to me, that still leaves the biggest problem that plagued the Cowboys last year and led to their second-half demise:
Who is the backup swing tackle?
To assume it's Green is a gigantic leap of faith after he failed miserably in that role last year against Atlanta. Bell stepped in next, but did little better. Edwards, a fifth-round draft choice of Tampa Bay in 2014, still has absolutely no NFL game experience
"The thing we did not want to do at the outset is say, 'This guy is going to play this position, this guy is going to play this position,'" Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett finally pointed out at the owners meetings this week. "One thing we like about both L.C. and Cameron Fleming is they have flexibility to allow us to play the best five guys."
The Cowboys know Collins can play tackle or guard. They know Fleming has played both tackle spots, guard and served as the jumbo package tight end with New England, and started in this past season's Super Bowl. They also seem to think Martin is capable of starting at guard, although he's played most of his career at center with San Francisco.
Of Fleming, Garrett says, "We see him more as a tackle, but he does have some guard experience."
OK, let's say Fleming ends up being a better tackle than Martin is a guard. Then Collins can move to left guard, Martin might be the backup, and recently-re-signed Joe Looney returns to his role as the game-day backup center/guard.
But, and believe me, this is a Texas-sized BUT:
Then who is the backup swing tackle?
Not sure the Cowboys want to just automatically make that leap of faith after he bottomed out in the Atlanta game, though Garrett says he'll get another chance.
The Cowboys had high hopes for him after a solid offseason last year, but he had a poor training camp and landed back on the practice squad for the third time in his NFL career.
If neither steps up, then the Cowboys are a tackle short, or would be required to make two moves on the offensive line to fix one injury.
Unless the Cowboys get lucky, as Jerry Jones said, tongue planted firmly in cheek, "If Smith's OK all year, I like our depth."
Though after last season when left tackle Tyron Smith missed three games and parts of two others, he knows even a gambling man wouldn't make that bet.
"Yeah, if we don't have Tyron," Jones began, waking up from his fantasy football moment, "we've got to figure out a way to adjust.
"But I'm confident the group we have in there now will do that."
If that's the case, then here is my what if:
What if Martin, who started 24 games over three years at center in San Francisco but was never active last year in Cleveland, proves he's capable of starting at left guard? Then Collins stays put at right tackle and Fleming solves the backup swing tackle riddle, assuming the Cowboys no longer trust Green or have trust in Edwards.
Or what if Green makes a comeback to win the starting left guard job again, though it appears the Cowboys intend to leave him at tackle?
Or what if the Cowboys draft an immediate starting-quality guard?
Look, Fleming's contract does not dictate he becomes an immediate starter. I mean, it's only a one-year, $2.375 million deal, with $2 million guaranteed – $1 million base, $1 million signing bonus – and a $375,000 roster bonus plus some play-time incentives. So his cap hit is just $2.375 million.
After what took place last year at swing tackle, the position badly holding this offense hostage when Smith could not play, bet the Cowboys gladly would have paid $2.375 million for a significantly upgraded backup swing tackle.
I'll be, once again this O-Line puzzle doesn't have five easy pieces.
What took place last year can't repeat itself. Because the inability to rely on a quality backup swing tackle severely contributed to quarterback Dak Prescott's second-half slump after he put this offense on his back over the first half of the season when the Cowboys were averaging 28 points a game. Then, to me, Dak's struggles snowballed into wide receiver Dez Bryant's second-half struggles, and with Ezekiel Elliott suspended the first six of those final eight games, this offense became impotent, averaging just 17 points a game in those final eight.
Certainly no one has asked me, and well they shouldn't, but the ideal scenario would be Collins at right tackle, Martin or a potential draft choice at left guard and Fleming my backup swing tackle, and that is not suggesting the Cowboys use their first-round pick on a mere guard, unless he's a tackle capable of moving inside.
That would make everyone sleep a lot better at night when thinking once again about the offensive line conundrum, especially Dak – before and after games.
And it would prevent Jerry from leaning on daydreams.