The Dallas Cowboys have had huge bragging rights for a long time now, boasting the #1 offensive line in the NFL. This off-season has hit them where it hurts, so the door is wide open for the top spot. While some may say the loss of Ronald Leary to Denver and the retirement of Doug Free is not as big a deal as it might appear, here’s why it matters.
Right tackle Doug Free announced his retirement from the NFL in March, following the loss of Ronald Leary, left guard, to Denver. You’d think this would give way for a solid backup to step in but the fact of the matter is there just isn’t one. Chaz Green is the first man Listed in the depth chart behind Free. Green has played a total of 4 NFL games, having started 2 games in 2016. He has been unavailable to play due to constant battles with injury throughout his 2 years in the league. The Cowboys signed Byron Bell, who might get a nod to fight for the position, but his stats don’t show him as a strong candidate to win the starting job.
Moving on to the left guard position, many fans don’t seem too heartbroken to see Ronald Leary go. Unfortunately, he was and remains the best that Dallas has to offer. Behind Leary is the original starter at that position, La’el Collins, who spent most of 2016 on IR. He underwent surgery for a torn ligament and missed all but 3 games.
The core group of Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, and Tyron Smith still anchor what’s left of the elite line, and they may provide enough experience to make the line adequate, but the inexperience on both sides of center will take a big toll on the production that many hope 2nd year stars EzekieI Elliott and Dak Prescott will see.
Without further ado, let’s talk about the Raiders. Their offensive line in 2016 gave every other team’s a run for their money. One of the key stats for an offensive line is how many sacks were given up. Prescott was taken down 25 times. Derek Carr, only 16. Left tackle Donald Penn only allowed one sack all season. Yes, it was a big one, but better than almost any other tackle in the game. Center Rodney Hudson had one of the best run-blocking games and protected his quarterback like nobody’s business and left guard Kelechi Osemele, named first-team all-pro, was a machine, plowing through every defensive line with authority. All three earned pro-bowl honors, the most from one offensive line tied only with…you guessed it, the Dallas Cowboys.
Also important to note is that the Dallas line was complete for most of the year, even though Free on his own allowed 8 sacks. Oakland’s line ranked top three consistently, often with only 4 of the 5 positions filled competently. Right guard Gabe Jackson was solid throughout the season but the right tackle position was always a question mark, week in and week out, and often filled poorly by the personnel available on the roster. Jackson will be on the line again this season for Oakland, and they have a solid opportunity to fill the right tackle position with potentially capable candidates in Austin Howard and new addition Marshall Newhouse. While neither has been able to break out in previous seasons, these men need to fight tooth and nail to win a job. Howard knows his job is now firmly on the line, if he doesn’t depart before the season starts, and Newhouse knows he has to put his best foot forward just to get his name in the mix. The draft is coming up and with few major holes, the Raiders will likely spend a mid-late round pick for this one.
Changes to a line can go one of two directions. They can drastically improve, as was the case for the Raiders in 2016, or they can kill the cohesion needed for them to thrive as a unit. This season will dictate which direction Dallas’ line goes and given the loss of a couple of key players, it’s reasonable to think that they’ll drop a couple of notches. With 4 out of 5 of Oakland’s positions definitely solid, the 3 that Dallas boasts don’t offer enough resistance to protect Prescott’s blind side, or offer a strong front for Elliott to shred his way through a defense like he did last year. Advantage – Oakland Raiders.