There aren’t too many positions on this roster that left the 2020 season stronger than they came into it, but the Dallas Cowboys interior offensive line fits in that category.
Yes, seeing Zack Martin miss six games was concerning. Still, after only missing two games in his first six years in the league, I’m not worried about his health being a yearly question mark like it is with Tyron Smith. Before the injury, Martin was playing at an All-Pro level, and he should return to that form in 2021.
What Went Right?
The good news is we got to see a pair of young players step up without being overmatched, and Connor Williams had his best year as a professional. The transition from being an athletic tackle in college to an NFL guard with the strength to hold up against some of the league’s most powerful players hasn’t been an easy one.
Still, Williams was the Cowboys’ most consistent player on that offensive line in 2020. I’m not sure if he’ll ever have the power to consistently stone his opponents, but his technique, balance, and patience have all gotten better with each year. That was evident last season.
In addition, Joe Looney stepped back into the center role after Travis Frederick’s retirement and proved to still be the serviceable player he always has been. When Looney went down, we got our first look at fourth-round pick Tyler Biadasz, and the rookie lived up to the hype that surrounded his selection.
Welcome to the NFL Youngster
Biadasz was widely believed to be one of the top centers in last year’s class, but technical issues that hurt his balance and pad-level were areas that needed to improve for him. As a rookie, we saw much fewer problems in those areas, which showed that he is likely our future starter at center.
Former third-round pick Connor McGovern also saw his first action filling in for Martin. Like Biadasz, we got a chance to see why the Cowboys were so excited to draft him after he slid out of the second round in 2019.
Take away the injuries, and every player that played guard or center in 2020 either lived up to expectations or exceeded them.
Which Cowboys Interior Offensive Linemen Are Returning?
Martin is expected to be back at right guard and is still one of the best in the business in that regard. However, there are still a lot of questions at the other two positions. Williams is set to return for the final year of his contract at left guard, although his best value could be as a trade chip which I’ll discuss later.
Biadasz is currently the front-runner to start at center in his second year, but McGovern, who can play all three interior positions, could also have a say in who starts there. In addition, Brandon Knight is likely to move back to guard after helping at tackle for most of the year due to injuries.
He could also be involved in a competition at left guard if that job opens up. Center Adam Redmond is under contract for another year, and journeyman Eric Smith returns as well.
Which Cowboys Interior Linemen Aren’t Returning?
I honestly thought the Cowboys would have already agreed to bring back Looney. Still, he is looking for a job on the free agent market.
It certainly wouldn’t be expensive to keep Looney, who was a locker room favorite on the Cowboys’ roster. Like McGovern, he can play all three interior positions, and while that role may go to McGovern in 2021, it never hurts to bring some insurance to training camp.
What Do Cowboys Need Inside?
Based on what the Cowboys have returning, they don’t need to make a move at this position heading into 2021. Martin, Williams, and Biadasz are the favorites to start, while Knight and McGovern are young players with starting experience as the reserves.
Williams’ Future in Dallas
However, some scenarios could lead to a move being made at left guard. It starts with Williams being a free agent after 2021. As I said, he’s gotten better every year he’s been in the league, and in a perfect world, Dallas would be looking to retain him.
Unfortunately, the salary cap is a real thing in the NFL. It’s not just suggestive like the NBA, where you can exceed the cap as long as you’re willing to pay the luxury tax and sacrifice profits for winning.
It’s definitely not baseball where they don’t even bother with the idea of a salary cap, although the restrictions on international spending help create a more even playing field when it comes to adding young talent each year.
The way Dallas’ cap situation currently sits beyond 2021, Williams is likely to be playing elsewhere in 2022. Even if they were able to carve out some space by restructuring or terminating contracts, Williams likely sits third behind Michael Gallup and Leighton Vander Esch on the list of players to prioritize among their 2022 free agents.
Let’s not forget Randy Gregory and Dalton Schultz would have their names in that conversation as well. With that in mind, Dallas has some versatility when it comes to the left guard position.
If someone fell in their lap in the draft, such as Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater, it wouldn’t be a stretch to see Dallas select him. They could then shop Williams and possibly net a future draft pick in a trade or a defender.
Williams’ Trade Value
Not sure the Cowboys would get anything of major value for a starter with one year left on his deal. Still, teams desperate for upgrades on their offensive line may be willing to pay more than the third or fourth-round compensatory pick Dallas would get for him leaving in free agency.
Also, if Dallas believes McGovern has a strong chance to win that job with Williams out of the picture, a player with experience snapping the football might be coveted as a backup to Biadasz.
Cowboys Draft Targets at Interior Offensive Line
As I mentioned above, the flexibility of the Cowboys’ situation given Connor Williams’ contract and trade value would allow them to take a guard, if a top prospect fell right in their lap. I eluded to Rashawn Slater because that is a very likely scenario at No. 10.
Is Rashawn Slater Too Good to Pass on?
Some believe Rashawn Slater can remain at tackle, where he played at Northwestern. If I’m valuing him only as a tackle, I believe he is a mid-first-round pick. Still, if you project him at guard, like I believe Dallas will, he’s a steal at No. 10 and one of only six players to garner a top-ten grade on my Big Board.
The Cowboys have always shown a willingness to stay true to their board on draft day. If Slater falls to ten, I don’t see us passing on him unless someone offers us a well-above value trade to move back while still being in a comfortable range to draft a corner like Patrick Surtain or Jaycee Horn.
The Patriots seem like the natural fit for a move like that, assuming one of the top quarterbacks is still on the board at ten. The Chargers and Vikings could also be suitors if they want Slater bad enough.
All three of those teams pick in order from 13-15, and I have no doubt one of those two corners would still be available at that point. Most trade value charts would have Dallas netting something equivalent to a high-third round pick, while swapping first-rounders. It might take a second or an additional first-round selection for the Cowboys to pass on Slater.
High Risk/High Reward Options
I would also like to point out a pair of players that could slide drastically due to medical issues. Most Cowboys fans may roll their eyes at the notion, but don’t put it past Dallas to pull off another move as they did with Jaylon Smith, where the reward is too much to ignore over the risk.
Suppose a guy like Alabama’s Landon Dickerson or Trey Smith fell into the third round. In that case, it’s at least worth a conversation if the Cowboys haven’t excluded them from their board for their respective medical histories.
Both have first-round talent, but a laundry list of significant lower-body injuries for Dickerson, as well as a Smith’s history with blood clots, could result in a substantial slide.
In the likelihood that Dallas waits until day three to add depth to this position, here are some options. Notre Dame’s Aaron Banks is a borderline day-two pick but could slide into that fourth-round range.
His teammate Robert Hainsey can play a variety of positions on the offensive line as well. East Carolina tackle D’Ante Smith could also kick inside to guard as he did in Mobile. Texas Tech’s Jack Anderson is another player with some positional flexibility that fits in the day-three range.
At center, Stanford’s Drew Dalman and Pittsburgh’s Jimmy Morrissey are both intriguing options. They both have the size to kick out to guard, which will be important in a swing role if McGovern moves to left guard in 2021.