FRISCO, Texas – Whether or not Terence Steele remains in the starting lineup past the bye week, the 24-year-old offensive tackle has taken the 'second-year jump' that Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy often says about players who make considerable progress after their rookie year.
Steele has now started 19 games at right tackle since joining the Cowboys as an undrafted rookie out of Texas Tech last year, including 14 starts in 2020 while La'el Collins was on injured reserve with a hip injury.
Those 968 rookie snaps proved valuable, even with some tough moments along the way. That early experience, plus his work in the offseason, has helped him become a more productive starter this season while Collins completed a five-game NFL suspension from Weeks 2-6.
"I just think he's more comfortable, more confident in what the job description is," Cowboys offensive line coach Joe Philbin said Tuesday. "I think he's more comfortable systematically with what we're asking him to do. When you're a rookie, especially when we didn't have an offseason program in 2020, everything was maybe a brave new world for him and all the other rookies. I think he worked extremely hard in the offseason from a strength and conditioning standpoint.
"Just a lot of things, and you always hope there's a natural progression from your first year to your second year, and I think that's evident with him."
Steele said he actually dropped about 10 pounds in the offseason but added lean muscle, specifically focusing on his lower-body strength.
"I felt like I was lacking a little bit, especially toward the end of the season," he said last month. "Just my lower-body wise, personally it wasn't where I wanted to be. I put the work in for that."
Said Philbin: "I think his play strength is a little bit better. His play speed has always been good, but I think that's been a little bit better. He's very decisive out there. He gets off the ball in the snap count perhaps as good as anybody that we have. He's a hard worker, and the work and the dividends have paid off for him."
The Cowboys have provided some help to Steele's side in certain situations, with a tight end or running back providing chip blocks on the edge. But Steele has also gone one-on-one against productive pass rushers, including Chargers three-time Pro Bowler Joey Bosa, and held his own.
Perhaps Steele's biggest impact has been in the running game next to six-time Pro Bowl right guard Zack Martin.
The Cowboys rank second in rushing yards per game (164.3) and are tied for second in yards per carry (5.1). They've averaged 9.2 yards running behind right tackle, second-best in the league.
Collins is back from suspension this week, so it wouldn't be surprising if the seventh-year veteran reclaims his starting job, though McCarthy hasn't publicly announced a decision yet. The Cowboys don't return to practice until next week after the bye.
"La'el's been here. He looks good, the workouts and so forth," McCarthy said. "We'll be excited to get him back into the full mix after the bye week. … He played on short reps coming out of camp. We just have to see where he is when we get on the field next Wednesday."
No matter who lines up at right tackle Oct. 31 at Minnesota, Steele has helped upgrade the Cowboys' offensive line depth through his own hard work.
"He's taken hold of an opportunity and he's done a good job," Philbin said. "He still obviously has a lot of ways that he can improve and get better."