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What Does Life After Tyron Smith Look Like For the Cowboys?

Dallas' longtime left tackle is expected to leave in free agency. It's the end of an era, and it prompts questions about the next one begins.
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Tyron Smith will go down as one of the greatest Cowboys of all time. Tim Heitman, USA Today Sports.

The Cowboys are making a big change to the inner workings of their offense this spring. The latest great regular season followed by a quick playoff exit led to speculation that any key figure in the offense could be gone this offseason—head coach, quarterback, coordinator, you name it. But the biggest domino to fall (both metaphorically and literally, considering his imposing frame) appears to be 13-year veteran left tackle Tyron Smith. Ian Rapaport reported on Saturday morning that Smith will not re-sign and instead explore his options in free agency.

It is indeed the end of an era. For more than a decade, Smith has anchored one of the most consistently great offensive lines of the 21st century. After spending his rookie season at right tackle, Smith moved over to protect his quarterback’s blind side and played more snaps there than any other Cowboy for 10 of the next 12 seasons. He’s one of just nine players with more than 9,000 snaps at left tackle for a team since 2006 (maybe longer, but that’s as far back as our data goes). There are kids entering high school this year who have never seen a Dallas team without Smith on the roster.
The Cowboys have their reasons for moving on (and Smith has his own as well), but it’s important to note just what Dallas is losing by going another direction. Smith is an eight-time Pro Bowl selection and has been voted first-team All-Pro twice. He is the only offensive lineman to win an Offensive Player of the Week award in the last 20 years. (Guard Brian Waters got one in Week 7 of 2004.) One of the NFL’s best pass blockers, Smith has allowed his quarterback to be pressured at one of the lowest rates for any tackle in almost every season.

The only years he didn’t rank at or near the 90th percentile for pressures allowed were 2012 (his first at left tackle), 2019 (where he was merely average) and two recent seasons where injuries limited him to a combined six games. If you prefer to look at something like overall blocking grade from Pro Football Focus, know that it looks essentially the same as the one above (and maybe even a smidge better). This is a future Hall of Famer who is still delivering high-end play, having been named a second-team All Pro this year after winning 89.1 percent of pass-block snaps. 

OK, that’s a lot of nice things said about a phenomenal player at an important position, which then prompts the question: why is Dallas letting him go?

For starters, even with Smith off the books, the Cowboys are right up against the salary cap in 2024. As of this writing, Over The Cap projects them to be $10 million over, though there are always contracts to move or restructure in order to get back into the green. But one of those moves will be to let the star left tackle walk in free agency and try to backfill in the draft or with a lower-tier free agent.

There’s an argument to be made that Smith might not have much left in the tank, even considering his excellent 2023 performance. He’s about to enter his age-33 season, which is on the older side for an NFL player and especially one who made his debut at just 20 years old. He has appeared in 170 games (regular and postseason combined) and played just over 11,000 snaps, both of which are among the top 10 for any offensive lineman since 2011—so it’s not just the years, but the mileage as well. His health has been less than stellar since 2020; he has played in 34 of 71 games in that time frame. Although he played in 14 games this season, he has not played a full season since 2015, slowed by an assortment of injuries. But health isn’t the only issue for a player his age—there’s also the fact that athletes regress as they get older. Most offensive linemen don’t age like Andrew Whitworth, who anchored the Rams’ Super Bowl-winning offensive line at age 40. In 2023, only about 7 percent of all the snaps at left tackle were taken by a player 33 or older.

Regardless of the general opinion on how Smith will perform as he ages, the fact remains that it appears that Dallas is going to have a different man guarding Dak Prescott’s blind side in 2024. The player with the inside track to land the gig is most likely third-year starter Tyler Smith, which is really nice for those of us who fear change and would enjoy the continuity of another T. Smith anchoring the left side. Smith was thrust into an audition for the job in 2022 and performed so admirably that I wrote this piece about him. With Tyron on the field,  Tyler moved back inside to left guard last season, to even better results. His pass blocking and run blocking grades and pressure rate allowed all took big steps forward from 2022 to 2023, and that’s after a 2022 season where he was a near NFL average pass blocker and an above average run blocker. If he can maintain at least some measure of those improvements, Dallas could already have its plus left tackle on the roster.

This plan, of course, just moves the hole on the line rather than closes it. If Tyler Smith moves over a spot, the Cowboys will have to find someone to play left guard.. They could venture into free agency looking for a low-cost veteran to fill a hole for a season, as they did with Jason Peters in 2022. But given their salary cap constraints, it would be prudent for the Cowboys to take a stab early in the draft on another offensive lineman to grow alongside Smith. As of now, there looks to be a good chance that Dallas can get a prospect with its first-round pick, with players including Amarius Mims of Georgia and Troy Fautanu of Washington falling in the Cowboys’ range in early mock drafts. If they go that route, this would mark the second time in three years in which the Cowboys have drafted an offensive lineman with the 24th pick—with Smith being the last one.

It’s not going to be easy replacing a franchise player, but the Cowboys had some reason to do so, and they have a potential heir apparent on the roster in Tyler Smith. It’s the end of an era, but that also means it’s the beginning of another. If it lasts half as long as Tyron Smith’s in Dallas, you can mark it down as a success.

Author

Dan Morse

Dan Morse

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Dan covers the Cowboys for StrongSide. He is a Pacific Northwest native & self-described nerd who has been covering the…

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