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Offseason | 2023

Spagnola: Tyler At Left Tackle Optimum Choice


FRISCO, Texas – Here is some clarity, and much needed by the way heading into next week's NFL Draft.

Pertains to the Cowboys offensive tackle position, both left and right.

Now we have discussed this previously, including many of their options depending on answers to these two vital questions:

First, just when will Terence Steele be ready to play football, heck, merely practice football for that matter, after undergoing surgery to repair his torn ACL on Dec. 13, 2022, not only ending his season but honestly affecting the efficiency of the Cowboys running game.

Next, just where do the Cowboys want, heck, even expect, Tyler Smith to play. Is last year's rookie sensation a left tackle. Might he play left guard. Or might he even play right tackle.

Those answers will seriously shape the Cowboys draft strategy those first two days come Thursday and Friday over the first three rounds. Because many out there are assuming the free agency loss of Connor McGovern puts the Cowboys in the offensive guard market, some even mocking selecting one in the first round, something the Cowboys have only done twice in their history, Zack Martin in 2014 and John Niland in 1966. That's it.

You might have heard of the baseball movie "It Happens Every Spring." Well, with the Cowboys drafting a guard in the first round, "It Happens Every Century" so far.

Why some might think the Cowboys drafted Pro Football Hall of Fame guard Larry Allen in the first round. Un-uh, Allen was only a second rounder in 1994 out of Sonoma State, though not from a projected talent standpoint but out of concern for his small school status competition and teams unsure on the health status of an old chest area stab wound unable to be properly examined since big ol' Larry didn't fit into the MRI apparatus back in the day. Not wide enough.

And there has been differing signals floating out of The Star about that guard spot. Might the Cowboys move Tyler Smith to left guard where the tackle trained during training camp until the Cowboys lost left tackle Tyron Smith to injury like two weeks before the start of the 2022 season if they think Tyron still is capable of playing left tackle. Or maybe if Tyron returns to right tackle where he took over for the injured Steele the final four regular season games and two in the playoffs, then they might work Steele at left guard.

Or maybe they would settle for some competition there between the recently signed veteran Chuma Edoga, though with only 13 starts in the 26 games he's played over four NFL seasons, and 2021 fourth round pick Josh Ball, who missed his rookie season recovering from an injury and then transitioned from tackle to a little guard last year but only playing just 41 offensive snaps.

Thus, the worries about the left guard position, with few even considering 2021 seventh-round draft choice Matt Farniok, who at least started two games at left guard during the seven games he played in 2022 while also serving as a backup center.

To me, if the Cowboys selected a guard at No. 26 come Thursday, that player should be a tackle capable of moving inside to guard, sort of in the same vein of Tyler Smith last year.

But if we are to be a Stephen Jones whisperer based on his 105.3 The Fan radio interview earlier this week, then sure sounds as if Tyler Smith is the left tackle – at this point – from here till retirement arrives.

Listen up.

"At the end of the day I think everybody would like to think we can keep (Tyler Smith) there at left tackle and have his progression continue, which by the way has been just amazing what he accomplished coming from Tulsa and being able to step in after practicing at left guard virtually all through the preseason and then stepping in for Tyron and playing the left tackle position as a rookie at such a high level," Stephen Jones said.

"At the same time, I know Mike and (new offensive line coach) Mike Solari, they want the best five guys on the field . . . certainly, we'll see what that combination looks like. So, you don't ever rule anything out. I do know everybody, you know, deep down would love to think that we can continue to play Tyler there at the left tackle spot . . . but we'll just see how that works out. I don't think we're totally committed to anything just yet but at the same time certainly like the thought process of (Tyler Smith) being able to continue to grow as a left tackle."

To me, sure sounds as if Tyler Smith is the left tackle, meaning Tyron Smith heading into his 13th NFL season, while having played just 17 of a possible 50 regular season games over the past three years, now becomes the veteran swing tackle the Cowboys so covet or potentially the starting right tackle if Steele is not ready for the start of the season.

Deep down sense the Cowboys are hoping Steele is ready to resume his right tackle duties by the season opener. Know the fourth-year restricted free agent finally signed his tender Thursday before today's 3 p.m. deadline to potentially sign an offer sheet from another team the Cowboys would have had a chance to match, so ostensibly will play for his $4.3 million tender if a long-term deal can't be executed. Plus, remember Steele was considered the team's most consistent run blocker over the past two years. That is why the Cowboys moved on from La'el Collins last year after hip surgery caused him to miss the entire 2020 season and suspension limited him to just 12 games in 2021, making room for Steele to become the fulltime starter.

Steele's return in time for the start of the season will be a close call, although Stephen Jones says of Steele's ongoing rehabilitation work, "He's just been outstanding. Britt Brown (director of rehab) would put Terence Steele as one of the best linemen he's ever had in terms of his rehab, his work ethic toward his rehab, just way ahead of schedule in terms of what typically would take an offensive lineman, certainly Terence Steele is at the top of the list."

Sounds quite encouraging, but there would seemingly be a chance Steele at least begins training camp on active PUP until cleared to resume practicing. As for being ready for the start of the season, going from mid-December to mid-September would be nine months removed from his reconstructive knee surgery, giving the Cowboys hope of Steele being ready for the season opener. Plus, Steele's incentive is high to have a productive 2023 season since short of signing a longer term deal, he becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2024.

If so, seems the Cowboys think the most optimum way to proceed on the offensive line would be with Tyler at left tackle, Steele at right and Tyron the swing guy, while figuring out the left guard spot for 2023.

But again, if drafting an offensive lineman, let me go back to my notion of taking a tackle who can play guard, but one good enough to start at tackle in 2024 if the Cowboys can't afford to fit an unrestricted free agent Steele into their salary cap structure. They have done this previously, well, last year with Tyler Smith and with the likes of second-rounders Flozell Adams and Solomon Page, tackles who spent their rookie seasons at guard. And, also with Nate Newton, who started at guard, moved to tackle out of necessity, then back to becoming a Pro Bowl guard.

As you should know, next week's draft is not all about 2023, meaning they have covered themselves well enough over the past month since the start of free agency to, as cliché as it might sound, draft the best player available no matter the position, and they sure as heck don't need a first-round pick at every offensive line position. That might be a tad excessive.

But sure sounds as if we do know they will have a first-round pick at left tackle, "at the end of the day" Tyler Smith moving in there on a permanent basis.


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