Why Zack Martin may be the best offensive lineman in the NFL

15 NOV 2015: Gerald McCoy (93) of the Buccaneers attempts to get past Zack Martin (70) of the Cowboys during the NFL game between the Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, FL. (Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire)
Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire

Unlike most offensive lineman, Zack Martin has gained quite a bit of notoriety since entering the NFL. That’s what playing under the bright lights at AT&T stadium will do for you.

The former Notre Dame product has been an elite offensive lineman for the Dallas Cowboys since the moment he stepped on the field. In his first two seasons, he was named to the All-Pro team twice (first team in 2014 and second team in 2015) to go along with two Pro Bowls.

Coming out of Notre Dame, Zack Martin was the best all-around offensive lineman in the country. He played with incredible technique to go along with fleet feet and excellent core strength. Nevertheless, Martin was docked pre-draft because of his short arms which measured in at 32.875 inches while the baseline for offensive tackles is usually 33.25 inches.

Despite the fact that Martin had the feet, technique, intelligence and strength of an offensive tackle, that 0.375-inch difference caused him to be cast as an offensive guard. If Martin’s arm length happened to be over that threshold, he probably would have been gone a long time before the 16th overall pick the Cowboys held. Luckily for the Cowboys, he didn’t, and they got the best young offensive lineman in football because of it.

Let’s examine what make Martin such a great commodity on the Cowboys’ already dominant offensive line.

Pass Protection

According to former two-time Pro Bowler and current owner of O-Line Performance in Arizona LeCharles Bentley, the three universal tenants of pass protection are A) get out of your stance B) create space and C) play inside-out, or maintain a half man relationship.

Martin does a fantastic job executing all three on a consistent basis. This play is a great example from the right guard:

On this play, Martin has Gerald McCoy, arguably one of the three best defensive tackles in the NFL, lined up as a three-technique. Martin has to do a good job of getting out of his stance and creating space because of McCoy’s elite quickness. Becuase Martin is engaged in his stance, he is able to explosively drive off his inside foot and create space. This gives Martin the extra millisecond he needs to diagnose and react to what McCoy is doing. Furthermore, the two-time All-Pro doesn’t over set and instead, maintains a half-man relationship, which allows him to easily mirror McCoy’s spin and nullify his pass rush.

On top of his ability to slide and mirror defenders as they try to rush the passer, the former first-round pick has an excellent anchor as shown on another snap against McCoy:

The best thing about a good anchor is that it looks easy. It appears as though the offensive lineman has no trouble shutting down the defender’s attempt to push them into the quarterback; however, that ignores the amount of technical nuance that goes into a good anchor.

On this play, Martin once again explodes out of his stance, creates space and plays inside-out of McCoy. Instead of trying to beat him with quickness, McCoy tries to use strength and a low pad level to get the upper hand, but the former Fighting Irish offensive lineman is having none of it. Also, notice Martin’s eye level, it never dips on contact, which allows Martin to hit his aiming points with his hands and not get off balance.

Notice how Martin’s hips and elbows are married together, which allow him to transfer a ton of force through the ground and into McCoy. This allows him to fight pressure with pressure. Furthermore, look at Martin’s ankle and hip flexion, which allow him to trigger his posterior chain, create torque and give himself the best chance to anchor. A couple small backward steps later, and Martin has thwarted McCoy’s bull rush.

Moreover, Martin is fantastic working in conjunction with center Travis Frederick and right tackle Doug Free to pass off stunts like he did here with Free against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as well:

Watch how effortlessly Martin passes off McCoy to Free and takes the defensive end as he stunts inside. He is able to do this because he and Free both set on the same plane, which allows for them to pass the defenders off easily along with great eye discpline to diagnose the stunt. Also, look at Martin’s posterior strength once again as he marries his elbows and hips to anchor against the defensive end.

Run Blocking

While Martin is an elite pass protector at the right guard position, he may be an even better run blocker. Martin’s footwork, strength and hand usage allow him to excel in any blocking scheme the coaching staff asks him to execute.

Nonetheless, his bread-and-butter is in the zone game. Like on this play against the New Orleans Saints:

On this play, Martin is lined up with a cocked three-technique opposite him. One of the hardest blocks for a guard to make is executing a reach block on a defensive tackle shaded to the outside of him in the direction the ball is going to go. To execute this block, Martin needs to get out of his stance quickly (sound familiar?), utilize his backside, or “drag,” hand to initiate contact before his frontside hand comes into contact then “churn” the defensive lineman all while playing with proper eye level and footwork.

Martin does all of that flawlessly. Also, notice how he torques his backside elbow to create the power that allows him to move the defensive tackle in the direction he wants him to go. Also, watch how after he has both hands on the defensive tackle, he stays in contact with the ground with his insteps of his feet which allow him to stay balanced and exert force from the ground.

Aside from his ability to reach defenders, he is also great working combination blocks like he does here against the New England Patriots:

This was just a thing of beauty between Martin and Frederick. The key to the initial combination blocks was the fact that Martin utilized the same foot and shoulder when initially contacting the defensive tackle. This allowed him to bump the defensive tackle off track and give Frederick time to overtake the block while also working to the second level under control and staying balanced so that he can take Jamie Collins out of the play.

Observe Martin’s eyes throughout the play. Even when he is beginning the combination block, his eyes don’t come off Collins. This allows him to know where Collins is and adjust his track to the linebacker if need be. Once again, he does an excellent job of marrying his hips and elbows to use activate his posterior chain to exert the maximum amount of force into Collins.


We weren’t even able to get into some of the other things that make Martin great; like his ability as a puller, or his habit of blowing defenders up on screens. There is just so much to like and appreciate.

It goes without saying that Martin is not only possibly the best guard in the NFL (can also make an argument for Baltimore Ravens’ Marshal Yanda), but he could also be the best overall offensive lineman, regardless of position, in the NFL.

The Cowboys just locked up Frederick to a new deal after already extending Tyron Smith. It won’t be long before they open up the piggy bank and give Martin a fat check for his services.

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