In 2016 the Dallas Cowboys possessed the most dominant unit in football. The Cowboy offensive line routinely made mincemeat of opposing front sevens en route to a 13-3 record and No. 1 seed in the NFC.
After a crushing loss to the Green Bay Packers in the playoffs, Doug Free retired and Ronald Leary took his talents to Denver on a big-money deal. To replace the departed talent, Dallas inserted Jonathan Cooper at left guard and moved La’el Collins to right tackle.
The result of the moves was less than favorable for the Cowboys. Even with perennial All-Pros Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and Travis Frederick playing most of the season, the Cowboy OL was unable to recreate the dominance in 2017 that it displayed the year prior.
Collins had his fair share of struggles throughout the season, but he continually showed progress against some of the best pass rushers in the NFL: Von Miller, Khalil Mack, Jason Pierre Paul, Ryan Kerrigan and Justin Houston. The arrow is pointing up for Collins, who is on track to develop into an upgrade over the retired Free, who was underappreciated throughout his Cowboy career.
Cooper performed admirably in Leary’s place, but it was nowhere near the level of play Dallas has come to expect from each member of the offensive line. Cooper, who is scheduled to become a free agent in March, proved that he can hang in the NFL, but his skill set would be better be utilized as a depth piece instead of a starter.
With a new OL coach (Paul Alexander) in tow, the Cowboys need to upgrade the left guard position this offseason, which, in theory, would enable the offensive line to return to 2016 levels of dominance.
There are a few big-money options in free agency such as Andrew Norwell and Justin Pugh, but those options would eat up too much salary cap space and make it difficult for the Cowboys to re-sign Zack Martin and (on defense) DeMarcus Lawrence.
The NFL Draft is the best means to an end for the left guard problem in Dallas. Let’s take a look at a few of the best options.
Tackle converts: Isaiah Wynn, Connor Williams, Alex Cappa
Much like the Packers, the Cowboys have shown an affinity for fixing their guard problems with tackle prospects. Zack Martin was a tackle at Notre Dame before sliding to right guard with the Cowboys, Collins was a tackle at LSU and then was initially signed to play guard. Leary was a tackle at Memphis and immediately made the move to guard upon being brought to Dallas.
Georgia’s Isaiah Wynn, Texas’s Connor Williams, and Humboldt State’s Alex Cappa spent their college careers perfecting their craft at tackle but could be better NFL fits inside.
Wynn, who has been connected with Dallas throughout the process, is the most likely option of the three to make the immediate switch. Wynn is a zone-blocking system’s dream since he displays the ability to create horizontal displacement at the line of scrimmage with excellent footwork and fluid mobility. Wynn effortlessly turns and shields defenders in the run game, leaving open creases for the running backs behind him. In pass protection, Wynn has the footwork and balance to mirror quick defensive linemen and the anchor to stymie any bull rushes.
Poor Ronnie Harrison stood no chance against Isaiah Wynn pic.twitter.com/dqZCmz2ZPA
— John Owning (@JohnOwning) February 1, 2018
Coming into 2017, Williams was one of the top offensive tackle prospects in the nation; however, an injury-riddled season has caused Williams’ stock to take a tumble, thus making the switch to guard a real possibility. When healthy, Williams has the movement ability and technique to thrive inside at guard. Whether it’s a base, reach, pull, or combination block, Williams has the tools and traits to flourish.
He’s lacks some core strength (unlike Wynn), so there’s a tad of apprehension toward his ability to anchor inside. However, Williams’ 6-foot-6, 320-pound frame and considerable physical gifts should allow him to compensate in the NFL (possibly playing with Smith and Frederick to his left and right certainly would help too).
Connor Williams video
As mean as they get and is the most athletic tackle at the top of the draft. An injury early in 2017 is the only reason he won't go in the top 10 but he played a few games to close of the year.@EatSleepFF @49ersHive #ConnorWilliams #Texas #NFLDraft #HookEm pic.twitter.com/XbTMJStGk5
— Fantasy and 49ers (@JL_Chapman) February 17, 2018
While Williams and Wynn would likely need to be selected in first round, Cappa is a good option on Day 2 or 3 of the NFL Draft. Cappa’s best position in the NFL may be a tackle, but he proved that he can hold his own at guard during Senior Bowl week. When lined up at guard, Cappa routinely handled prospects from much bigger schools, using impressive technique to stymie rushers in pass protection and create holes in the running game. Cappa is one of the most violent offensive linemen in the class — he often left a trail of bodies in his wake at Humboldt State.
Before you all head to bed, here's a horror film for you:
"The Undercover Undertaker"
Because Alex Cappa doesn't care about your feelings, he's just here to take your soul..@VinceMcMahon & @TripleH, keep a tab on this man; just in case. pic.twitter.com/5KjUNCew3k
— Cagen Cantrell (@CeeingTheDraft) February 1, 2018
Pure road grading guard: Will Hernandez
If the Cowboys wish to grab a more traditional guard to fill the void at LG, Will Hernandez, who has already started to develop a relationship with some members of the Cowboy OL, would be the perfect option.
— Will Hernandez (@willhernandez76) February 7, 2018
At his core, Hernandez is a fiery talent who tries to finish his opponents on every given play.
At 6-foot-2 and 348 pounds, Hernandez is a thick and powerfully built player who can tap into a vast well of power to vertically displace defenders with regularity. Hernandez displays impressive grip strength to latch on and control defenders throughout a play.
During Senior Bowl week, Hernandez was one of the best players in attendance, proving that the jump from the University of Texas-El Paso to the NFL wouldn’t be too big for him — at least when compared with the other prospects who were present in Mobile, Alabama. In the run game, Hernandez played under control with a proper base and balance, allowing him to maximize the amount of force he could exert on contact, which led to a lot of defenders being moved out of their gaps.
Wondering why we're so high on OG Will Hernandez? See here as he buries the UT DL here on a big run block (he's the LG)… We also covered him back in our first big board update of the season on September 22nd. Here's the full article (it's free) https://t.co/1drByn8t7W pic.twitter.com/DAR3w6RS8K
— Andre B Simone (@andresimone) January 27, 2018
Hernandez doesn’t have the movement ability of the tackle converts mentioned above, but his power and ability to displace defenders are unrivaled in this class (outside of mega-talent Quenton Nelson). With Hernandez in the fold, the left side of the Cowboy OL could become the best run-blocking trio in the entire NFL.
Center converts: Billy Price and James Daniels
The last NFL Draft option for the Cowboys to fix their left guard problem: center converts. Unlike the tackle converts, the Cowboys don’t have much of a history of turning centers into guards, but Ohio State’s Billy Price and Iowa’s James Daniels are too good to not be considered by Dallas.
At 6-foot-4 and 295 pounds, Daniels is a little light by guard standards, but he displays the movement ability and integrated technique to succeed despite his lack of bulk. Daniels effortlessly climbs to the second level of the defense with a keen understanding of the angles that will allow him to carry out his responsibility. Daniels is most comfortable in a zone-blocking system where his footwork and quickness allow him to reach-block shaded defenders with ease.
Iowa center James Daniels is a fun watch. pic.twitter.com/ZspX9cOkZP
— Kevin Brady (@KevinBrady88) January 30, 2018
While Price was a full-time center in 2017, he was primarily a guard in the years prior, making his transition to guard in the NFL a much more straightforward process than it is for Daniels. Price, much in the same vein as Hernandez, is a power player who intends to displace defenders off the line of scrimmage on every play. Price plays with excellent hand technique. He consistently initiates contact with inside hand positioning, proper pad level, and a consistent base, permitting him to generate a ton of power on contact.
Billy Price is a really good player and should be a potential target for DAL. The dude can play pic.twitter.com/iePWHvOTO8
— John Owning (@JohnOwning) February 22, 2018
Overall, the Cowboys picked a good year to need a guard since there are a plethora of quality options to fix the problem.
Dallas just has to pull the trigger.