I can't be the only football fan casting an envious eye towards Dallas as they march towards the playoffs. Not only are they one of the most entertaining teams to watch in the league but they're also packed full of young talent. Much of the recent attention has been focused on impressive rookie RB Ezekiel Elliott, and so it should. He's consistently putting up performances that make you stop and take notice. If he doesn't break Eric Dickerson's rookie rushing record of 1,808 yards, he'll come pretty close.
When people aren't waxing poetic about Elliott, they're talking about Dak Prescott. A rookie 4th round QB who's making the Cowboys scouting department look like geniuses on a weekly basis. As we see Wentz start to struggle, Lynch fail to beat out Trevor Siemian and number one overall pick Jared Goff just start to get his first opportunity, Dak has become one of the most feared QB's in the league.
All of this comes down to individual talent of course, but a lot of it comes down to the situation they found themselves in. Both rookies are in the enviable position to run and pass behind the best line in football. Now I'm not going to short change Elliott or Dak, both are tremendous athletes with huge athletic ability, but this is a team sport. Their jobs are made a lot easier when Dak's given time to pass, and Elliott gets a clean hole to power through. Now they create on their own on certain plays, but the offensive line enables them to consistently produce.
We hear a lot about this offensive line, but just how was it built?
Left Tackle - Tyron Smith - 2011 Draft, 9th Overall Selection
One of the best left tackles in football, Tyron played his rookie season on the right side of the line before moving to the LT position in 2012. Smith has continued to produce year after year and 2016 is no different. The Cowboys invested a top 10 selection in Tyron and after signing him to a 8 year $109 million contract in 2014, they invested a hell of a lot more.
Left Guard - Ronald Leary - 2012 Draft, Undrafted
Don't let the undrafted fool you here. Leary was no needle in a haystack discovery. He was a highly touted guard who was diagnosed with a degenerative knee condition. This ensured he went undrafted, and the Cowboys jumped on him as a priority free agent. He's had a couple of injuries here and there and he missed a lot of time in 2015, but for what the Cowboys gave up (very little) he's repaid them 10 times over. Following the injury to La'el Collins, he has regained his place on the most dominant line in football.
Center - Travis Fredericks - 2013 Draft, 31st Overall Selection
One of the smartest players you'll find in football. This selection was considered a reach, many expected Fredericks to go late 2nd, early 3rd round, and some high profile draft experts criticised not only the selection but the trade the Cowboys made to move down to select him. Yet again the Cowboys scouting department came out laughing. Not only is he the anchor of the best line in football. He also calls the protections on the line, extremely valuable for any QB, let alone a rookie. Is he the best center in football? I'd argue he was, but if he isn't, he's very close.
Right Guard - Zack Martin - 2014 Draft, 16th Overall Selection
Another year, another first round offensive lineman. I have the privilege to watch Martin play at Notre Dame, and it won't surprise anyone who watched him week in and week out that he is now dominating in the NFL. In his rookie year he was voted to the All-Pro team, the only rookie to be named, the first offensive line rookie to be named to that team since 1947. If someone were to ask me to name the best guard in football right now, I'd name Martin without any hesitation.
Right Tackle - Doug Free - 2007 Draft, 4th Round Selection
The older statesmen of the line, Free has spent his entire career with the Cowboys. Although he's been largely effective over his career, he has battled injuries and foul problems throughout. Although he's definitely the weakest link on this offensive line, most teams would happily take a Doug Free as their weakest link. I wouldn't be surprised to see him replaced at some point over the next year and would you bet against the Cowboys taking another offensive lineman high in the draft? I wouldn't.
We also can't forget La'El Collins. The guard who the Cowboys signed after he went undrafted in 2015 due to threats that he would sit out the season if he was selected lower than the 3rd round. Collins had 1st round talent, he probably had top 10 talent, however due to some off the field issues he dropped out of the draft completely. If he's healthy he's the starting left guard for this team.
The Dallas Cowboys offensive line was sculpted with an enormous amount of patience and an enormous amount of investment in terms of both money and draft picks. Every single player starting on that line was either a draft pick or UDFA signing by the Cowboys. They built this dominant unit over multiple years, using an excellent scouting department to place a higher value on certain players than others (Fredericks), taking a chance on injury concerns (Leary) or off the field concerns (Collins) and finally taking the best players available that fit their rebuilding process.
Remember that Dallas didn't have a winning season from 2010 to 2014. A period where a lot of this restructuring was taking place. The fans had to be patient and so did a notoriously impatient owner in Jerry Jones. However sitting at 10-1 right now, I'm sure every single Cowboys fan will say it was worth it. They needed to make a decision on an area of the team that needed their focus and investment, they made it the offensive line. As mentioned above, having a dominant offensive line enables other positional groups to thrive. It makes the QB better, the RB better, the TE better and the receivers better. I'm an old school guy who firmly believes that games are won in the trenches.
The Jets are coming to a crossroads where they need to decide what their direction should be. As things stand you have to imagine that Ryan Clady will be gone next year, as well as Breno Giacomini, mainly because their performances do not match up with the salary. Brian Winters will be a free agent. There has been so much focus on the QB, but remember when Mark Sanchez looked like a good QB in 2010? He was playing behind one of the best lines I can remember for a Jets team.
I hope more than anything that the Jets will take notice of how the Cowboys built the team that is currently tearing up the league. The focus on the offensive line is a great strategy for a team who's not ready to compete and who has little to no guaranteed money tied up in its current crop of starters.