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Offseason | 2024

Spagnola: Possibly the center of draft attention


FRISCO, Texas – For those favoring the mocks with the NFL Draft now within two weeks, the Cowboys using the 24th pick in the first round on an offensive tackle seems to be the overwhelming consensus.

Understandable if using logic from afar. The Cowboys lost the services of starting left tackle and future Pro Football Hall of Famer Tyron Smith, as healthy this past season as he's ever been, starting as many as 13 games for the first time since the 2019 season and matching the most he's started in a single season since all of them in 2015.

Assumption: Big blindside hole over there for Dak Prescott.

So usually when inundated with all these mock draft projections, without really talking with anyone, those mockers make sure there is an offensive tackle available when they get to the 24th pick without even considering all the other Cowboys needs, and there are many at an assortment of positions. Or failing to consider if there is a better player available at that point at another position.

Any-who, for historical sake, does anyone remember when the Cowboys selected Tyron with the ninth pick in the 2011 draft, that was the first time the franchise used a first-round selection on an offensive tackle since Howard Richards in 1981, and at that only the second time doing so until going with Tyler Smith in 2022. And lets also remember in selecting Tyron, the then 20-year-old was the first offensive tackle off the board that draft. Got the best one, too.

But in some of these 2024 mocks, the offensive tackle going to the Cowboys, and know this is a deep offensive linemen draft, has been the sixth one in many cases coming off the board in the first round. Last time the Cowboys went that deep at a position in the first round for a player at any position was in 2017, when Taco Charlton was the sixth defensive end taken in the first round.

How'd that work out?

Heck, even last year Mazi Smith, and the jury still is out on him, at least was just the third first-round defensive tackle off the board at 26. And speaking of that, would have no problem grabbing another DT this year, too.

Now at this point, who really knows what the Cowboys will do at 24, and that includes trading down like five or six spots, if they have multiple favs at that point in the draft, to pick up an extra third. Goodness knows they need all the draft capital they can gain having just the seven picks this year. Plus, even in normal years, and the draft might not be as deep as some might think, the Cowboys have been known to have no more than like 15 to 18 players with first-round grades.

This sort of reminds me of the 2013 draft when the Cowboys were in the process of rebuilding an offensive line having grown old seemingly overnight during the 6-10, 2010 season. First came Tyron. Next came center Travis Frederick that year, trading down from 18 to 31 to snag the much-needed position, and with the third they received for their troubles moving down selected future starting wideout Terrance Williams.

And even the next year, 2014, with their eyes on defensive lineman Aaron Donald, who didn't quite make it to them at 16 (went 13th to the Rams), and then set to turn in the card for linebacker Ryan Shazier (15th to the Steelers), they famously settled for guard Zack Martin. He was the fourth overall offensive lineman off the board, but very importantly the first interior one.

And we are experiencing the rest of that future Hall of Famer story to this day.

Now then, here is what the Cowboys must decide, especially after just spending a first-round pick in 2022 (number, uh, 24 again) on versatile offensive tackle Tyler Smith, initially his rookie year working all offseason and training camp at left guard until Tyron Smith was lost for the season two weeks before the opener. Tyler then moved to left tackle for 16 starts (and one at guard), performing awfully well before playing at a second-team All-Pro level at guard this past season:

Is Tyler a better left tackle than any tackle they can draft at 24?

Head coach Mike McCarthy at the NFL meetings said Tyler is a guard "now," but injected the age-old theory of "starting the five best guys." If that means Tyler is the tackle, then why take a tackle with so many other needs on this team to fill. And if the Cowboys still select a tackle, to me, then that guy better be versatile enough if need be to replace now tackle Tyler Day 1 at left guard.

But again, and from a personnel capital and cap-savings point, why not move Tyler to tackle since already spending a first on that position and the accompanying cap money and then decide if grooming-guard T.J. Bass is capable of playing the left guard spot he more than adequately filled in at as an undrafted rookie last season. He was good enough to start two games as an injury replacement and finished off two other games as an injury fill-in.

Bet none of those mocks are considering any this. Too deep.

Then, and taking a page out of the 2013 draft when restocking the offensive line, how about instead using that first-round pick, and likely with a trade down, to select a guy at a position that's going to touch the ball every one of those 60-some snaps a game.

A center.

There is no more Tyler Biadasz, the free agent 16-game starter in 2023 and 2022 Pro Bowler following Dan Quinn and mucho $$$ to Washington. What about that spot if a center is worthy of a first-round pick? Or even if he's worthy of a Day 2 top-10 pick? Might can't wait that long into their second-round pick selection for their guy. Sort of like what took place with Frederick, the Cowboys heavily criticized for trading down to draft a center many were figuring could have been taken in the second, though no guarantee he still would have been available at pick 47.

Said then NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock, "I had a third-round grade on this guy." Hmmm, maybe that's why he failed as the Raiders general manager. And who knows where the anonymous AFC scout is today who reportedly classified the pick on Twitter back in 2013 with a "yuk."

How'd all that turn out a couple of Pro Bowls later?

Well, there is this center projected to go at the end of the first round, early second round that's caught my eye. West Virginia's Zach Frazier, 6-3, 314. He ran the 40-yard dash in 5.24, which is not bad for an interior offensive lineman. This, too, a four-time West Virginia high school heavyweight state wrestling champion, losing only two matches his entire high school career at Fairmont. Not only a two-time All-America center, but also a National Football Foundation Scholar Athlete. (Always good to have a smart center.)

Frazier caught my eye while watching his workout and game tape. Moves well. A bulldog. Anchors down the middle. Has the ability to move laterally and climb to the second level. Oh, and this: One of the scouting reports compares him to, uh, Tyler Biadasz. Could be the first true center off the board, and a true center since he started four seasons at West Virginia, a three-time All-Big 12 Conference center and three-time team captain. Shorter arms cause him to fight even harder.

Just a thought.

And a lot of this draft decision on a center will, uh, center on what the coaches think of Brock Hoffman, originally signed out of Virginia Tech as an undrafted rookie free agent by Cleveland in 2022, spending time with the Browns and Cowboys on practice squads that year. But then in 2023 with the Cowboys, he appeared in 17 games, starting two, and playing well in those starts.

This center position certainly must grab the Cowboys attention, if for no other reason then, well, like who is the backup if Hoffman is the starter? Weak up the middle spells offensive doom, and the Cowboys know that only too well, having struggled there in 2011-12 after moving on from veteran Andre Gurode before making center a priority by selecting Frederick in 2013. Can remember then head coach Jason Garrett complaining that his various centers those two seasons far too many times ended up in quarterback Tony Romo's lap when of all things run blocking.

No bueno.

Bottom line here: Because of where they are at 24, the Cowboys don't need to get pigeonholed into drafting a tackle in the first round and possibly settling for a down-the-line tackle if a higher graded one doesn't fall to them, especially when they already have a darn good one on the team. Just follow their big board.

As for me, all things being even, rather be searching for a guard with a Tyler in hand. And sure as hell don't want to be merely settling for a center. Want a good 'un.

Got to admit, pretty logical line of thinking, wouldn't you say?

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