ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — There’s Pro-Bowl good, there’s All-Pro good, and then there’s the Dallas Cowboys’ offensive line good.
The saying “Everything’s bigger in Texas” certainly holds true when it comes to the five big men in the trenches of Dallas’ offense, who weigh in at an average of nearly 315 pounds. But the Cowboys’ offensive line is much more than just big.
Adjectives athletic, strong and talented are often used to describe their line, but it’s difficult for words to describe just how good they truly are. On Tuesday, though, Denver Broncos’ head coach Vance Joseph did his best to put it into words.
“This is the best offensive line in football,” he said matter-of-factly. “They are big, athletic and very, very smart… It’s going to be a great challenge.”
With three 2016 first-team All-Pros among the Cowboys’ five offensive lineman, it’s difficult to disagree with Joseph’s statement.
Left tackle Tyron Smith—whom Von Miller said “has been great since Day One”—center Travis Frederick and right guard Zack Martin have been to a combined 10 Pro Bowls and have 10 All-Pro recognitions to their name, including five first-team All-Pros with three coming last season—meaning that if the entire NFL built their best offensive line, three would be Cowboys.
“Three of those guys were selected in the first round so obviously they had a lot of talent coming out,” said Cowboys’ All Pro tight end Jason Witten. “They’re big, they’re strong, they’re athletic… They have a lot of confidence in themselves.”
To put this in perspective, the Broncos have a lone first-round draft pick along their offensive line, rookie Garett Bolles. Outside of Bolles, Denver has a second-round pick (Menelik Watson), fourth-round pick (Max Garcia), sixth-round pick (Matt Paradis) and an undrafted free agent (Ron Leary) starting along their offensive line. They have a total of zero Pro Bowls or All-Pro selections.
The two Cowboys’ offensive lineman without any honors to their name, and who were not drafted in the first-round aren’t too shabby, either. Left guard Chaz Green—who is taking the place of Ron Leary who left in free agency for the Broncos—was Dallas’ third-round pick in 2015, but dropped in the draft due to injury concerns.
On the other side of the line, at right tackle this year, is La’el Collins who was the Cowboys’ starting left guard ahead of Leary at the start of 2016 before getting injured. Collins went undrafted in 2015 but was viewed as a first-round talent. He fell out of the draft after he was questioned by police about an ongoing murder investigation. By the time Collins was cleared of wrongdoing, the draft had already happened.
“He’s great too. He was really a steal in the draft. He should have been a first-round pick,” Miller said of Collins. “So if you look at that offensive line, it’s an all-star offensive line.”
In 2016, the big five up front were instrumental in leading the league’s fifth-best scoring offense, all while having a rookie quarterback (Dak Prescott) and a rookie running back (Ezekiel Elliot). The offense still flourished, running for the second-most yards in the league, 149.8 per game, and allowing the eighth-fewest sacks.
When Elliot wasn’t the ball carrier, the offensive line still got the job done as the team averaged 4.3 yards per carry, which on its own would have been just outside the top third of the league. Include Elliot in the discussion and they had the third-best yards-per-carry average at 4.8, over a yard more than Denver’s 3.6.
Witten praised the offensive line’s talent, but said that wasn’t the main reason that made them an elite group, adding they are a dangerous group because “they continuously get better throughout the game.”
“More than anything else it's their approach,” Witten explained. “They are the tone setters on the football team. They are the hardest workers, they come in early… They have an unbelievable competitors mindset. They just fight. They are always the last ones in there shoving. They are playing to the whistle. They have good concepts. They understand what we are trying to do. They are smart and they just find a way. It’s a combination of skill, size and just their competitive nature and how they go about it.”
Another way to explain how good their offensive line is, is by taking a look at the player Denver took from them in the offseason, seven-year vet Leary. Not only was Leary Denver’s highest paid acquisition in the offseason, his $9 million a year contract instantly made him their highest paid offensive lineman and the eighth-highest paid guard in the league.
Leary was a key part of the Cowboys’ offensive line last year, but entering the year he was a backup at left guard. After Collins injured his toe in the third game of the season, Leary stepped in and performed very well, but the Cowboys still let him leave after the season.
To say the least, Denver will have their work cut out for them.
While the Broncos have talented and promising players in their front seven to go up against the Cowboys’ offensive line, they only have one first-round draft pick and only one player that has earned a trip to the Pro Bowl: No. 2 overall pick in 2011 and five-time Pro Bowler Von Miller.
The encouraging news for Denver is Jared Crick and Zach Kerr—who both missed the team’s first game of the season due to injury—were back at practice on Wednesday and they could play Sunday, according to Joseph.
But a front seven trending in the right direction, like the Broncos are, is still significantly different than the most established offensive line in football.
Without a doubt, Denver’s front seven faces their most difficult test in the trenches of the season in Week 2. Whether or not they can rise to the challenge will go a long way in deciding who comes out on top.