In the mid-2000s the Dallas Cowboys built an offensive line mostly through free agency that featured multiple Pro Bowl players. Flozell Adams, Leonard Davis, Andre Gurode, Kyle Kosier and Marc Columbo made up one of the better groups in the league, but by the 2009 playoffs, that group had gotten old, and injured, and the Minnesota Vikings made them look bad in a divisional round beatdown.
The 2010 unit remained largely intact, outside of plugging a young Doug Free in at left tackle for the departed Adams. The struggles from the playoffs the year before carried over to the 2010 group, and the team’s 6-10 record put the Cowboys in the ninth-overall slot in the 2011 draft.
Their pick? Tyron Smith, the 20-year-old offensive tackle from USC who was viewed as an athletic freak with virtually unlimited upside. He was the first offensive lineman the Cowboys had chosen in the first round in the entire time Jerry Jones had owned the team to that point, and his selection signaled a shift in philosophy, one that would prioritize the offensive line in a way few teams ever have.
Two years later, the Cowboys traded from the 18th to the 31st pick in the 2013 draft and selected Travis Frederick, a center from Wisconsin, in a very controversial selection.
The next season, with high profile and controversial quarterback Johnny Manziel from Texas A&M on the board when the Cowboys were on the clock for the 16th pick in 2014, the Cowboys selected Zack Martin, the tackle from Notre Dame.
The repeated investment in the offensive front has paid off, and the Cowboys have built what is largely regarded as the best offensive line in the league. The three first-round picks have each made multiple All-Pro and Pro Bowl teams.
Which leads to the ultimate question: Which of the three All-Pros is the best?
Smith plays the most physically demanding position protecting the “blind side” of the quarterback, most often against the opponents’ most gifted defensive linemen, Frederick plays the most mentally demanding spot, responsible for helping the quarterback identify defensive fronts and setting protections, along with dealing with often the biggest and most physical players in the run game. Martin may be the best at his job, but of the three, he plays the position that would be considered the “easiest” in relative responsibility.
If you weight the players in the rankings with difficulty of the position, along with their ability and how well they execute their roles, the three probably fall in the following order:
- Zack Martin — Even playing the “easiest” position of the three, Martin is the best. He might even be the best player the Cowboys have, and there is an argument to be made that he is the best offensive lineman in the league. He’s borderline perfect technically, and has the mental aptitude and mindset to go along with the physical ability.
- Tyron Smith — Smith is still the athletic phenom he was when he was drafted, and his technique matches that athleticism. The gap between Martin and Smith is minute, and Smith might be the best in the league at his position, which happens to be one of the most important in the game.
- Travis Frederick — The fact that the best center in the NFL is the third-best player on the Cowboys line speaks to just how great the unit is. On most teams, Frederick would be the best blocker on the team. His mental capacity and technical aptitude are truly elite, and with the loss of Free in retirement, Frederick is now the leader in the offensive line meeting room. He is immensely valuable.