With a young franchise quarterback preparing to cash a massive contract and an electric running back that just got his own payday, the Dallas Cowboys had to make sure those investments were protected.
That’s why no team spent more on the offensive line in 2018. No team is spending more on the offensive line in 2019. And no team is scheduled to spend more in 2020 or 2021.
Dallas is seeing big returns in their offensive output, which the Vikings will be tasked with holding down Sunday night. Quarterback Dak Prescott is primed to set career highs across the board, boasts the second-best QBR in football and has the Cowboys leading the league in yards per play. Running back Ezekiel Elliott is looking for his third thousand-yard season in four years and may push Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook and Christian McCaffrey for the rushing title. Amari Cooper is on pace for a career 1,400 receiving yards.
And the offensive line is at the center of it.
“The games are won on the offensive and defensive line every week in the National Football League, and that’s been the case for 100 years,” said Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett on a conference call. “You’ll never get a chance to see the impact of your skill if you’re not good on the offensive and defensive line. We’ve invested in those guys over the last number of years, and we’re really glad that we did because they’ve been cornerstone players for us, and again, those are the guys that allow your quarterback to have success, your running back to have success, your receivers and tight ends to have an impact in the passing game.”
The last time the Vikings faced the Cowboys at U.S. Bank Stadium in 2016, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin and Tyron Smith were starting on the offensive line, and they’ll be back in the same spots Sunday night. All three are first-round picks and all three have been awarded long-term extensions. La’el Collins was injured for the 2016 game, but he was given a five-year extension in September to be the Cowboys’ right tackle of the future. He was also a first-round talent before reports of a police investigation surfaced on draft day and knocked Collins completely off the board. The Cowboys took a gamble, and it paid off.
Arguably the least heralded of Dallas’s starting five is left guard Connor Williams — a second-round pick in 2018 that is considered a top-three guard by Pro Football Focus.
The interior line consisting of Frederick, Martin and Williams has played virtually every snap this season. The tackles Smith and Collins missed three combined games in October but both started Dallas’s last two outings.
Since the start of 2015, Smith, Collins, Martin and Frederick have made 240 of 288 possible regular season starts, an 83 percent rate that reflects a continuity rarely seen in the NFL.
“They’re physical, playing together for a while,” head coach Mike Zimmer said Wednesday. “Smith obviously is outstanding. The left guard (Williams) is terrific. I think the center (Frederick) is a good player. They’re very good. They’ve only given up, I think, 11 sacks. They’re good in really all assets, pass protection, good in the run game.”
Zimmer shorted them one — they’ve actually given up just 10 sacks, third-best in the NFL.
The Vikings, on the other hand, are still aspiring to have that type of year-to-year consistency on the offensive line. With Kirk Cousins in the middle of an $84 million pact and Dalvin Cook probably mere months away from mimicking Dallas’s Elliott and pursuing a big payday before his contract year, Minnesota hopes it’s found the right mix.
The Vikings executed a hard reset on the offensive line after a dismal, injury-riddled 2016 season. None of those starters remain, and only Rashod Hill — who the Vikings acquired midseason — is still on the roster as a backup.
Since 2017, the Vikings have gone after higher-end talent in the draft, starting with Pat Elflein in the third round, followed by Brian O’Neill in the second round (2018) and Garrett Bradbury in the first round (2019). Mixed with veterans Riley Reiff and Josh Kline, who are both putting together strong seasons, Minnesota has formed a serviceable front five that has promise for the future. Cousins has only been sacked 16 times, tied for seventh-best in the NFL, despite some early-season growing pains.
“I think protection’s been pretty good from the start,” Cousins said. “I don’t know that it’s been suddenly an evolution and now we’ve gotten it together. I remember coming away from some early games feeling like we were off to a great start with protection, and Kevin is doing a great job not asking linemen to hold up over and over and over again on seven-step drops and straight dropbacks. I think that’s also a recipe to have success: Don’t put these guys in position to fail.”
It’s yet to be seen whether this group will have the same retention ratio as Dallas’s core. Elflein would be in line for extension talks this coming offseason, but he’s already undergone a position change from center to left guard, where he’s struggled in pass blocking this season (ranked 74th out of 82 qualified guards, per PFF). O’Neill is on a more positive trajectory in his second season and could be looking at a position change in the near future — from right tackle to left tackle if the team ever parts with Reiff. O’Neill would be looking for a new contract after the 2020 season.
The Vikings have a fifth-year option available on the center Bradbury, giving them several years before they have to make a decision on their most recent first-round pick. Bradbury improved mightily in the second quarter of the season, shaking off some early woes in pass protection and the center-quarterback exchange.
As the numerous contracts given to the Vikings’ defensive stars begin to expire, perhaps the next wave of money will be devoted to the blockers, who have assets to protect that are just as important as the Cowboys’.