You may remember 2009 as the last time the Cowboys had an offensive line that seemed ready for action and a strength of the team. I often remember the day at Arrowhead Stadium that season where Marion Barber and the offensive line had their way with the Chiefs defense despite declaring before the snap that another ground and pound play was coming right at you. And who is going to forget back to back weeks in September where that offensive line, bruising back, and 2 blocking tight ends gouged the Giants and Panthers for 460 yards on the ground in the first 2 games ever played in Arlington?
Trust me, it happened.
In the last decade, 2009 is easily the year that this team ran the ball most effectively and ran it without gimmicks. They did not rely on shotgun runs or deception. They had beef up front and we actually capable of bullying a game at the line of scrimmage. That was 5 years ago and none of the 5 starters are still here, with Doug Free being the only holdover at all, but the Cowboys owned the offensive line and also won the division and went to the playoffs.
Here is a look at the interior of the offensive line – something you don’t think about until it is awful – for the last 5 years, accompanied with snap totals for the player who played the most at that particular spot:
Kosier – 1,098
Gurode – 1,093
Davis – 1,098
Kosier – 849
Gurode – 1,105
Davis – 1,077
Holland – 641
Costa – 1,024
Kosier – 1,051
Livings – 1,129
Cook – 837
Bernadeau – 1,036
Leary – 1,018
Frederick – 1,025
Bernadeau – 696
* – Snap Counts from ProFootballFocus.com
As you can see, along with Flozell Adams and Marc Colombo on the flanks, the interior was Kyle Kosier, Andre Gurode, and Leonard Davis back then.
You may also remember that in 2010, it appeared Colombo, Davis, and Kosier were all nearing the end of the road, with Colombo not far behind. They were an aging offensive line and pretty expensive, too. They had a season that cratered with a 1-7 start, an injured QB, and an offensive line that got old all at the same time.
In addition, the philosophy that was pretty much all gap (man) blocking that enjoyed a guy like Kyle Kosier pulling in space (and sometimes big Davis) under the coaching of Hudson Houck was losing steam as something that may have become antiquated (even though it still was working in certain corners of the league) and more teams were leaning towards zone blocking schemes and smaller linemen versus the bulldozers of the past.
That led us to 2011 where Houck was going to get a chance to make the OL more of a hybrid line, but after the cap purge of Davis, Colombo, Guode, and Flozell in about 18 months, he was going to get a chance to work with a rookie star-in-training in Tyron Smith, but also would have to replace veterans with other rookies (Bill Nagy) or virtual rookies (Phil Costa) who would both start in Week 1 without really ever doing anything but being present when everyone else was cut. Kosier remained (although his body was shot) and Doug Free was the one remaining starter who had a chance.
Easily predictable to everyone but apparently the Cowboys front office, 2011 was an amazing disaster from the offensive line standpoint. To call Nagy and Costa outclassed is an understatement and by the end of the year, Montrae Holland was called in off his couch and Kevin Kowalski, yet another undrafted rookie, were being overrun by the Giants in Week 17 as a battered Tony Romo took all of the national blame. Yes, paying offensive linemen less allowed the Cowboys to spend elsewhere, but the neglect and ill-advised ideas of 2011 are never discussed enough, but of all of the Jerry Jones evaluation train wrecks, I don’t think the decisions to set sail with Costa and Nagy as starters in 2011 ever gets enough publicity. It might be the worst idea this administration has ever come up with.
As is the habit, they found blame in the coach Hudson Houck and retired him after 2011 because he could not make practice-squad players into starters, and in comes Bill Callahan to fix things in 2012.
Except, yet again, we had no plans to invest in the offensive line (because of that salary cap again) and it appeared the drafting of David Arkin was no more successful than the Nagy/Costa/Kowalski ideas of 2011. So, in comes 2 starters who were both cheap and easy to acquire because their former teams seemed to have no plans to keep them in Mackenzy Berndeau and Nate Livings. Also, they traded for the guy who would start the whole year at center in Ryan Cook just days before the opener. Costa, who was hurt almost all of preseason got hurt on the first drive of the season, and in stepped Cook for the rest of the year. Bernadeau and Livings were ok, but Livings’ body was also breaking down and his play was inconsistent. Cook missed a few games and Derrick Dockery was signed and put in the games over Arkin, letting us know how things must be for him. Free and Smith switched spot and Tyron kept developing as the least of the problems on this line now at left tackle for the next decade.
2013 was even more odd at first. Doug Free was given a pay cut or an exit, and ultimately decided that a starting job was worth more than his anger over the cut. Ronald Leary, a 2012 undrafted free agent was given a chance to flourish despite concerns about a degenerative knee, and most importantly, the Cowboys invested with a 1st round pick on Wisconsin center Travis Frederick and then were widely criticized for reaching on that pick. Zone blocking was all the offseason chatter and despite plenty of flirting with veteran guards in the late summer (remember all of the Brandon Moore story lines?) and the realization that Nate Livings’ career was over, the Cowboys finally were able to bring in Brian Waters after the season opener. Waters played for about 2 months before his body was no longer capable of performing, which mysteriously fit Bernadeau back into the lineup and suddenly the Cowboys with a front line of Smith, Leary, Frederick, Bernadeau, and Free actually seemed to figure out zone blocking in the 2nd half of the season.
They feel great about Frederick and Smith, a bit leery about Leary (sorry), due to all of the same reasons that he slid out of the draft – his health, and Bernadeau and Free are both marked as temporary help until they have a better idea. Which, at the present, they do not as depth on the offensive line is as low as ever. And that is why we spent last week looking at Doug Free replacements and this week we need to examine guards for the future.
Here is a reminder of the measurements and scores for the current 3 starters on the Cowboys OL so that you have something to compare the prospects with:
With all of that in mind, let’s get started on this crop:
David Yankey – Stanford
There are 2 guards that are above the rest of the field and in my mind, it would be a pleasure to get either one of them. They both look like absolute studs to be, but for different reasons.
Yankey is another Stanford guard, and although I bristle when people paint players from the same place as similar only because they attended the same institution, it is fair to say that if you went to Stanford in this era, you were part of a physical, pounding offensive line that was going to control the line of scrimmage and also try to control the game. He isn’t David DeCastro and there may be a thing or two that are not as great as he was 2 drafts ago, but he is really good.
Yankey is strong and can move. He is the pulling guard for Stanford who comes from left guard around the center into the right side of the line or out to the sideline and destroys everything in his path. His times weren’t impressive at the combine, but he has quickness and gets out in space well.
When he is protecting I saw no issues at all. Going forward he pushes guys off the play and backwards and demonstrates football strength that might not be obvious on the bench press, but it is evident when you watch him play.
One of the other aspects of his game that is quite appealing would have to be the way that he sees everything that is around him. Very mindful of blitz pickups and stunts and seems to have a really good awareness, which is something that is noticeable – good and bad – with many linemen. Some have clear tunnel vision and are only able to see the man they are blocking and never are able to adjust to stunts or blitzes or movement to help save a play. Yankey clearly is trained in these areas quite well.
If he has a weakness, and there are almost none, it would be how he looked in various short yardage situations where he appeared to not have the same leverage ability that he had in normal spots. Perhaps he allowed a defender to get lower and therefore the play caved in – most notably at the end of the Rose Bowl against Michigan State, but I saw that a few times and that may be where his technique will use some work. But, again, that is not anything to get too alarmed by when you consider the full picture.
I think he is a fantastic guard prospect who can do everything you need, but because of his ability to pull and run, he might be a better candidate for a man-blocking scheme. He has played left tackle and left guard, but when you are stacking the guards, this is the one I like the most.
Xavier Su’a Filo – UCLA
Xavier Su’a Filo
Now, Filo is the one who most people have as the top guard, and you won’t get a huge argument from me on Yankey over Filo, save for a few small details that we will get to in a moment.
Filo also played guard and tackle at UCLA and did so this season where he pretty much split the year between the two spots. He is likely best suited for a zone scheme as he has that size and superior speed to Yankey. Unfortunately, he also gives up some power and leverage and that is where I would give Yankey the nod, because I saw them both play against the very strong Will Sutton of Arizona State and while Yankey appeared comfortable, Filo had a really tough time holding him off. You could see that he had his hands full against a quick 3 technique who could use power and hands to shed off a guard who may not be as stout.
But, make no mistake. He can mow guys over when he is run blocking. He absolutely punishes guys and is looking to rock defenders when he makes contact. This can cause the occasional big miss as he is leaning to gain power, but I will take that over some of the guys below who play a far more docile blocking game and play with less power than you would like.
Filo honestly seems like a rare bird who actually is a guard who looks more suited for tackle to me. I say that because we often see guys in the other direction, tackles who might be better suited for guard, but seldom the other way around. But, in this case, Filo’s feet are so solid, that if he was just a straight tackle, he might be the type of guy who can move with any speed rusher, get out and run block, but also not have to take on giant inside defensive tackles so often. If I took Filo, I might want him to eventually move out to tackle.
He also seems quite aware and able to coordinate the entire line with his handle on what the entire defensive front is doing and seems to be comfortable being the leader of the group. I really think this guy is another 1st round talent who should be very good for a long, long time.
But, all things equal, I think I like Yankey slightly more.
Gabe Jackson – Mississippi State
The next level shows us this big man from Mississippi State, who some like more than the other two simply because he is the definition of the old school mountain of a man who is ready for an inside street fight all day long.
Gabe is a massive man who started 52 straight in the SEC and has handled himself quite well. You are not getting around him unless you are willing to run your way right out of the play. He is a mauler and as you can see by 30 bench press reps, he can sustain his strength well.
In looking at him as a LG, there are some limitations that make you understand what you can and cannot do. One, he is not going to be on the move very often. If you keep it simple, he can get to the 2nd level and smash a LB in space, but please don’t ask him to change directions much, because he doesn’t hit moving targets every time.
Two, his pass pro is great, but it is not a drop at all, he pretty much dares anyone to move him off his starting point and while this isn’t a big issue, it does leave larger gaps in a pocket that make a team more susceptible to running LBs or DBs off his gaps because he is not closing down the pocket.
But, other than that, he might be able to zone block, and he can certainly man block with ease. He is a really impressive prospect who I like quite a bit, and worthy of a Top 50 pick.
Cyril Richardson – Baylor
There was a lot of time last fall where everyone felt that Richardson was a 1st round talent who could go in the top half of the top round. He also has a fantastic story as a man who has already dealt with so much adversity that anything the NFL shows him will not be that big of a challenge.
However, Richardson was not nearly as impressive on tape as I hoped he would be and is clearly a step back for me than the 3 names above. Despite appearing to be a wonderful combination of absurd size and decent wheels, I found the most disconcerting issue to be that his strength does not translate to the football field as much as it should. He seems to be unable to maul people and move defenders out of the path the same way that Jackson or Yankey could.
Regardless of the play called, and Baylor is doing plenty from the Shotgun and even though they run a lot, it is from spread type formations, Richardson looks to be really extending himself to take over a battle in the trenches. It would be great to see him dominate people like other players in this class, but if you pop on a game like the home game against Oklahoma in November, you just didn’t see much of that at all.
I also watched the Central Florida and Texas Tech games for Richardson and in viewing him in about 250 plays or so, found his performance to be very inconsistent and while he can clearly turn into something special, I did not see enough of that to say he is a special prospect. His feet were disappointing, but his strength never seemed apparent and his technique needs work.
These inside guys win on leverage and knowing how to use weight against their opponent, but Cyril seems to let defenders get so tight on his chest that he just cannot control them like some of the accomplished guards up the ladder from his spot. He also was destroyed on a few stunts and was too upright on pass protection, which again zaps a player of their strength. He just seldom gets the push you would expect of a guy who is 330 and plenty strong.
He has a very full tool box, but I fear that unless he is well coached, he may be just another talented player who did not put it all together. He is worth the trouble if I have time to develop him, but there is not a real scenario where I think he is ready to start in the NFL in 2014.
Brandon Thomas – Clemson
Brandon Thomas is a lot like last week’s prospects in Zack Martin, Antonio Richardson, Jack Mewhort, Morgan Moses, and Billy Turner, in that they are all college tackles that might fit better in the NFL as guards. Thomas played almost his entire career at tackle at Clemson, but many seem to project him better as a player inside. This is generally code for the idea that they lack the quickness against the Von Miller level edge rushers who populate the NFL and would be better in tight spaces where they can avoid the quick-twitchers in open spaces.
Thomas has some very impressive movement skills and shows it most of the time, although you can find snaps where he looks like he is laboring to get down the field. It happens. You can also see where he is dealing with issues in pass protection against smaller edge guys, especially when Ohio State pushes him a few times with knocking him off balance and beating him back to the inside.
He is athletic and has very long arms and that helps him deal with issues in his gaps a lot better and I can see why he is a much better guard prospect, given his height and his feet that might be a count too heavy.
He has really good straight ahead power and also closes off the gap nicely when he is run blocking and turns his body to wall off the defenders from getting to the runner. These are all very useful characteristics that will come in handy.
I honestly think he would be a reasonable tackle or guard and although I would never seem him as a world beater at tackle, he is ready to play at a level that is satisfactory at tackle in the NFL, but could be much better than satisfactory if you put him at guard.
I see the theory here, but knowing how many tackles flunk out and are moved inside to play guard, you can then surmise that guard is over-populated in the NFL and therefore there is not a huge need to spend too high a pick on something that exists in great supply. I hope that makes sense. There is no shortage of guards around the league who were once tackles. He is useful, but the question would be if anyone thinks he is worth a 2nd rounder.
Dakota Dozier – Furman
Here is another prospect who many believe is in the mix for the Top 50-100 and also was a tackle at Furman, but most have him positioned as a guard at the next level.
I also think Dozier is what you would consider to be a real prospect for zone blocking teams which, of course, would put him in play for Dallas at a certain point.
I do want to make a confession in the interest of transparency, in which I don’t like to comment on a player if I have not watched enough of his play to feel comfortable knowing the player. This, for me, requires about 200-300 snaps and although that is not the complete picture of a player, it is a big enough sample that I feel like I have the overall idea of what he is all about.
In the case of Dozier, I tried my best to find some Furman tape, but only was able to find Clemson 2012 and the East-West Shrine game, which sort of counts, but all-star games have their own issues as well.
Anyway, I see him as a guy who can play tackle or guard and a player who looked fantastically comfortable in every situation as a player who is strong and clear on what he is supposed to be doing. He turns his man and walks him off in the run and looks able to get his kick steps in and is in a great spot to receive pass rushers in protection.
He occasionally gets beat on the snap count by quickness to either gap, but overall, there is plenty to like here and he is an exciting prospect. The trouble is, I certainly didn’t see enough snaps – maybe 100 – to feel like I saw everything.
So, until further notice, I really like him, but need to see more.
My summary is this: Tier 1 is all about Yankey and Filo who are both great, but it might depend on what you are looking for as it pertains to your particular need. Jackson is a step down, but still very solid.
Richardson and Thomas are mysteries in that they are not finished works and your ability to develop them will impact where they go from here. And Dozier is a small-school guy who might belong higher than he is if he just had more exposure. Of course, NFL teams have access to all of his work, so I wouldn’t be shocked to find out Dozier is up with Gabe Jackson as legit 2nd round prospects.