I should admit right away that I am one of those killjoys who believe that success and failure in the NFL Draft is mostly luck. I subscribe to positional value ruling the day, and I support a strategy of retaining or acquiring picks rather than packaging them to move up. There are exceptions to every rule, but in general, I believe this is the proper way to operate in a market ruled by randomness.
That doesn’t mean I don’t find the draft fascinating. It intrigues me because of the randomness. We get to see how teams view positional value, how they view their own rosters, and generally get a window into an organization’s process in building a roster.
As for this year’s, Mike McCarthy might think the 2023 Cowboys draft class is “sexy as hell,” but no one who doesn’t work for Jerry Jones would characterize it as such. Dallas did trust its process and assemble a class of athletic freaks, at least based on testing scores. But based on the positions selected and the lack of college production (until they selected Deuce Vaughn in the sixth round), at first glance, it’s a pretty boring draft class.
Interestingly, though, Dallas managed to have a “boring” draft class while also deciding not to address one of its most glaring needs, at one of the most boring positions: guard.
Last season, the Cowboys’ plans for the position were upended before the season even started, when the loss of left tackle Tyron Smith forced rookie Tyler Smith to move from guard to tackle (or, actually, back to tackle, after he played tackle in college and then prepared to start at guard for much of the offseason).
Disaster ensued. Connor McGovern stepped into the starting left guard spot … and got injured seven plays into the season. Next up was second-year player Matt Farniok, for a few games. Farniok, predictably, looked overwhelmed. Veteran offensive lineman Jason Peters was brought in at 40 years old to work at both guard and tackle, and looked 40 years old. Right tackle Terrance Steele was injured late in the season, resulting in Tyron Smith stepping into that spot once Smith was able to return instead of returning to his old left tackle spot and displacing Tyler Smith. That may have helped matters on the perimeter, but no one came close to solidifying left guard all season.
Fast forward to the offseason, when Dallas could count on Tyler Smith, Zach Martin, and Tyler Biadasz as certainties (even if Smith’s 2023 position is uncertain). Tyron Smith is slated to return on a restructured contract, but he’s played in just 17 of the 50 possible regular-season games since Mike McCarthy became head coach. Steele was retained on a second-round tender, but he is coming off of a torn ACL. (The team says he’s on track to be ready for training camp.)
This group was, far and away, the Cowboys’ best five. Tyler Smith would start the year at left guard and presumably move to left tackle if and when Tyron Smith missed time. Steele would stay at right tackle. Then, in March, Jerry Jones said this of Steele’s future:
“He’s such a top tackle … as we have it right now, he should be the backup tackle on both sides as we would look at it right today,” Jones said during the NFL Owner’s Meetings. “That’s a lot of position flex right there. You say, ‘Why don’t you move Tyler in [to guard]?’ but we also know that Tyron and Tyler both would make quite a tandem out there. The smart play would be to have outstanding depth there, and Steele gives you that.”
Brilliant! With Tyron Smith’s injury history, it would be great to have Steele waiting in the wings, ready to play for either Smith at a moment’s notice.
One question, though: doesn’t that leave a pretty glaring hole at left guard?
Jones mentioned “internal” options to potentially address that spot. Josh Ball, a 2021 fourth-rounder, is reportedly working at the position after being strictly a tackle to this point in his career, and Farniok is still on the roster. Dallas signed veteran Chuma Edoga, who played a total of 155 snaps over the last two seasons with the Falcons and Jets. But surely, this was not the plan. Not for the starting job. It would have to be something they took care of in the draft, right?
They didn’t, even though we know they view it as a significant need. How? Because the Cowboys insist on running a content operation right alongside a football operation. Take a look at this clip in their war room, when Dallas was debating between eventual selection Mazi Smith and an offensive guard (widely believed to be Syracuse’s Matthew Bergeron).
In the video, Cowboys VP of Player Personnel Will McClay says that he “prefers Mazi because he helps us now. With the guard … you’re adding something where we have depth. I think the defensive lineman gives you an immediate starter and something for the future.”
Smith seems like a fine pick that addresses a need, although I’m not sure where the idea that the Cowboys defense was abhorrent against the run is coming from. Dallas finished fifth in rush-defense DVOA, fourth in rush-defense EPA, and third in rush-defense success rate. If you prefer traditional metrics, the Cowboys ranked 15th in yards-per-carry allowed and fourth in rushing touchdowns allowed.
That said, veteran Johnathan Hankins is not the answer at defensive tackle for the future, and the gulf between Smith and the next nose tackle on any board was large, so, fine. There would be time to address guard on Day Two.
But then, in the second round, Dallas opted for tight end Luke Schoonmaker with the 58th pick, while Florida’s O’Cyrus Torrence, a much more highly regarded prospect at guard, was sitting right there (Torrance went one pick later to Buffalo). Once again, Dallas believes it has solid internal depth at guard, which doesn’t track when compared to the tight end depth. While neither Jake Ferguson nor Peyton Hendershot is prepared to be full-time starters, they both turned in encouraging rookie seasons.
Meanwhile, outside of Martin, the Cowboys’ guard room is Udoga, Farniok, Ball, and fifth-round pick Asim Richards. None of them are starting-caliber players. Some of them might not even be backup-caliber. All but Farniok have spent much more time at tackle than guard dating all the way back to their college days. And unlike tight ends, who can rotate, move around, and be used in ways that play to their strengths, there is no hiding a left guard. Whoever the Cowboys settle on will play 70 snaps a game, and he will sink or swim.
All of that makes Schoonmakers the “make or break” player of this draft for me. If Dallas can find a way to use his elite athleticism to juice up the offense for years to come, perhaps it will be worth throwing duct tape over left guard for a season or two.
Because, as presently constructed, Dallas needs to let Tyler Smith or Steele play left guard, and just hope for the best with Tyron Smith. Then, when Tyron Smith inevitably goes down, figure it out from there. Does that sound familiar? It’s exactly what they did last year, all the way down to Connor McGovern finding a deal in free agency that Dallas deemed too rich, much like Connor Williams before him. And, just like a year ago, Dallas did essentially nothing to replace him.
You can’t have a highly drafted or highly paid player at every spot on the offensive line; I get it. But leaving a starting spot hinging on the hopes of rookies and backups switching positions is a very risky play for a team with Super Bowl ambitions, in what figures to be a critical year for both McCarthy and Dak Prescott. Just ask last season’s Cowboys.