NFL

NFL Teams Gearing Up to Follow the Dallas Cowboys’ Blueprint

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The NFL is a copycat league, and for once, teams are preparing to copy the Cowboys. And, no, we’re not just talking about their marketing and branding concepts.

The Cowboys finally broke the chains of mediocrity last year, going 12-4 after three consecutive 8-8 seasons. And while there are several reasons Dallas turned things around — more efficient quarterback play, improved defensive discipline, etc. — the main catalyst was dominant offensive line play.

Is started when Cowboys scouts convinced owner Jerry Jones to use his first-round pick on OG Zack Martin instead of QB Johnny Manziel. The result was an offensive line that bullied opposing defenses.

And how did the Cowboys build that offensive line? Mostly through the NFL Draft, with Martin, LT Tyron Smith (2011) and C Travis Frederick (2013) all coming in as first-round selections. RT Doug Free is a former fourth-round pick who signed a new three-year, $15 million deal this offseason. LG Ronald Leary is a former undrafted free agent, but the common thread is that each of these players was developed in Dallas.

“I couldn’t have landed in a better spot, with a better group of guys that just want to be successful,” Martin said after the season. “These guys have helped me so much this year. And I think as a group, we’ve just made an effort to get better and better and keep raising the bar.”

The Dallas offensive line paved the way for DeMarco Murray to run for more than 1,800 yards, winning the rushing title by nearly 500 yards. That same line helped Tony Romo set a career-high with a 113.2 passer rating, nearly 10 points better than his previous best (102.5 in 2011).

Dallas was rewarded for building its team from the inside out; now plenty of other teams will follow that same blueprint.

It will start on April 30, the first round of the NFL Draft. As many as eight offensive linemen could go in the first round: Brandon Scherff (Iowa), La’El Collins (LSU), T.J. Clemmings (Pittsburgh), Andrus Peat (Stanford), Ereck Flowers (Miami), Cameron Erving (FSU), D.J. Humphries (Florida) and OT Jake Fisher (Oregon). That would mean a quarter of all first-round picks are spent on offensive linemen.

However, spending a first-round pick on the position is not enough to follow Dallas’ blueprint. The Cowboys, remember, are driven by three former first-round picks. That means several teams who have already invested heavily on the offensive line may consider using even more assets to fortify their trenches.

Look at the Chargers, for example, who picked up starting linemen in each of the last two drafts: first-rounder D.J. Fluker in 2013 and third-rounder Chris Watt in 2014. San Diego also made the offensive line a priority this offseason, re-signing King Dunlap and swiping Orlando Franklin from the Broncos. Despite all that activity, the Chargers will consider drafting an offensive lineman with the No. 17 overall pick, with Clemmings being a leading candidate.

The Chiefs are in a similar situation after spending three recent early picks on offensive linemen: Jeff Allen (second round, 2012), Donald Stephenson (third round, 2012) and Eric Fisher (No. 1 overall pick in 2013). Yet Kansas City will consider using yet another draft pick on the position, with Collins providing an intriguing option at No. 18.

There are more examples across the league. The Giants will consider Scherff at No. 9, despite leading off the 2013 draft with Justin Pugh; the Browns are being linked to offensive linemen despite spending second-round picks on the O-line in 2012 (Mitchell Schwartz) and 2014 (Joel Bitonio); and the Colts will seriously consider an offensive lineman in the first round despite leading off least year’s draft with OL Jack Mewhort and spending two early picks on the position in 2013 (third-rounder Hugh Thornton and fourth-rounder Khaled Holmes).

Long story short: teams that thought they had already addressed their offensive lines are gearing up to double down on their investments.

Even the Cowboys, who laid this blueprint by spending three of their last four first-round picks on offensive linemen, are not done shopping for big uglies. Asked if Dallas would consider another offensive lineman in the first round of this year’s draft, Jones said: “It certainly is [possible]. It certainly is.”

Even in this pass-happy era, offensive linemen have become more valuable than skill players. Just look at last year’s 49ers team and know that Michael Crabtree can’t get a new deal from any of the league’s 32 teams but Jonathan Martin got scooped by as soon as he became available.

The truth is assembling a dominant offensive line is the easiest way to build a winning foundation. Of the top-10 offensive lines from last season (according to Pro Football Focus), only one of them belonged to a team with a losing record (the 7-9 Browns had the No. 6 ranked offensive line).

So don’t be surprised when the draft rolls around and you see several general managers doing their best Jerry Jones impressions. May God help us all.

Want to talk more about some of the offensive line prospects in this year’s draft? Join Michael Lombardo for his weekly NFL Chat on Friday at 2pm EST. But you don’t have to wait until then … you can ask your question now!


About Michael Lombardo

Michael Lombardo

Michael Lombardo has spent more than 10 years as a team expert at Scout.com, primarily covering the Chargers, Cardinals and Panthers. He has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and other venues.