Is Tyron Smith Ready To Lead The Cowboys O-Line?
The simplest, most practical formula for the Dallas Cowboys’ success under their 2013 personnel is predicated on the offense controlling the football and dictating the tempo. Injuries and choke jobs aside, offensive line play is the only liability within this approach, which means that LT Tyron Smith — the unit’s only proven player — has some heavy obligations to fulfill.
As Smith has prepared for his third NFL season, Dallas has propagated the idea that it has shored up the O-line without actually doing so. Between prematurely drafting offensive lineman Travis Frederick, flirting with veteran OT Eric Winston in free agency and engineering an exhausting, media-devouring contract renegotiation with RT Doug Free, the Cowboys have dedicated a lot of man-hours to the offensive line with little to show for it.
To make matters worse, they’ve publicly and financially gone all-in on Tony Romo. He’s their nest-egg investment, and they’ve given him a marketplace — a wide-open offense replete with weapons — where he can thrive. But they haven’t improved Romo’s protection, so they haven’t reduced the biggest risk factor of all: his health.
For Smith, it spells heightened pressure, pure and simple. He’s the blindside man, the most athletic big man, the premiere run-blocker and he’s in the Top 10 for biggest salary cap hits. Smith is also 22. Is he up for being a focal point within a unit already drowning in media attention?
In grading Smith’s 2012 season, Jonathan Bales of thedctimes.com writes that the Cowboys averaged nearly 4.5 yards per carry on left-side running plays featuring Smith as a point-of-attack blocker. In a later assessment, he notes Smith allowed three sacks in 2012 — his first foray at left tackle — but dismisses that statistic as volatile and meaningless.
But it’s not, mainly because Smith isn’t a center, guard or right tackle. According to this scouting report, one of his biggest assets lies in the combination of length and athleticism. Fluid movements, long arms and quick feet — pass protection should be Smith’s primary M.O. at any position, particularly the one assigned the other team’s top pass-rusher.
But this year could be different.
There are documented weak spots worth testing in the Dallas trenches, and Smith isn’t one of them. Free is obviously the biggest — whether his game has been affected by offseason turbulence and derision is something opponents will want to explore early and often. Frederick appears to be in line for the starting center job. But with both guard spots still filled with concerns in 2013, he could be switched — a move that would trigger some changes in defensive game-planning.
Regardless of what spots they target, teams are going to place a heavy premium on bullying and humiliating the Cowboys’ offensive line. It’s a glaring X-factor on an otherwise incendiary unit. The linemen don’t have much blocking help from the tight ends, and their competence has come under enormous doubt at a time when blocking proficiency is the last thing impeding true offensive deadliness.
Smith is the only starting lineman whose play hasn’t contributed to that perception. But in 2013, he’ll have to play as if it has. Off the field, Smith has shown maturity through his handling of publicized family problems. And, at 22, he’s the one who has to lead this unit and make them a lot better in a very little amount of time.