Who should start at left guard for Dallas?

Dallas Cowboys

The Dallas Cowboys have one of the best offensive lines in the league, but they still need an answer at left guard.

For the first time in several years, the Dallas Cowboys have a hole on their offensive line. This is significant because since the end of 2013, the Cowboys have had one of the best offensive line units in the NFL with very few arguing otherwise.

But when people (the fans and media) talked about the Cowboys’ offensive line, they misunderstood what made them so great. The biggest misconceptions about the Dallas’ offensive line was that the only reason they were/are dominant is because of their three first-round picks.

While it’s true that Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin are all at the tops of their positional groups when healthy, that’s actually not why they have been light-years ahead of other teams in the NFL.

Their biggest strength was that they had no below average players on their line. There was no weak link. Each and every starter was at the very least an average player at their position. This means that teams couldn’t target one position and attack it with their best player. Even when teams tried to do this, they failed.

Think back to 2014 when the Houston Texans lined up J.J. Watt ( during the absolute apex of his career) against the Cowboys’ “worst” blocker in Ronald Leary. In that game, Dallas shut-out Watt. He finished the game with zero sacks, QB hits or tackles for a loss. There was just no weakness for teams to attack week in and week out.

So when the Cowboys lost Doug Free and Ronald Leary during the 2017 offseason, many assumed they would pick up right where they left off of last year because of their three Pro Bowlers. Many viewed those other two positions (especially left guard) as replaceable because of the talent of the others on the offensive line.

Unfortunately, many now are seeing that an offensive line is only as strong as it’s the weakest link. That is especially true in today’s NFL with defensive coordinators being more willing to move their best defenders all around to find mismatches.

Dallas’ weak link comes at left guard. All through training camp and into the preseason, the Cowboys rotated Chaz Green and Jonathan Cooper trying to find an answer at left guard. They finally settled on Green and he started the first three games of the season before being benched after failing to stay healthy.

Cooper has started the last three games for the Cowboys, but even despite the offense performing very well when he has been on the field, head coach Jason Garrett said after the game that the decision to go with Cooper “isn’t necessarily a permanent one.”  Why are the Cowboys hesitant to give Cooper the job? What makes Green an attractive option, even despite his significant injury history? That is the subject of today’s film room.

Let’s start off with Jonathan Cooper. At this point in his career, he’s no longer the great athlete that a lot of people remember him as when he was at North Carolina. But, he’s a much more well-rounded player than Green. Cooper’s best work comes as a pulling guard where he can find work and doesn’t have to necessarily reach a certain player or gap.

Another area where Cooper is further ahead than Green is in straight power formations. Cooper isn’t the biggest guard (listed at 6’2″), but that lack of height gives him natural leverage to get under blockers and move them backward.

On the play below, Cooper is able to not only stop DeForset Buckner at the line of scrimmage but also pass him off to Tyron Smith and then get to the second level. Textbook level stuff here from Cooper:

But what Cooper doesn’t do well at this stage of his career is play in the wide-zone rushing attack. He just doesn’t get to the second level of the defense quick enough any longer and when he does, he often doesn’t have the athleticism nor the balance to actually make the block.

He also struggles with quickness, meaning that defenders can often shoot-gaps and penetrate into the backfield. On the play below, Cooper’s block almost destroys the entire play, but luckily for Dallas, their star running back was able to find a different lane outside of the structure of the play.

Cooper’s deficiencies in the wide-zone scheme have forced Dallas to adjust their blocking concepts. Unfortunately, the wide-zone rushing attack has been the Cowboys’ bread and butter for the past several years. Eliminating that from their playbook removes a huge chunk of the offense. While they didn’t need to run much zone against the 49ers, it will be needed when facing better opponents.

That’s why the Cowboys are hesitant to say that Cooper is the full-time starter at guard as Green is the better player in space. Dallas trusts that not only Green can get to the second level, but that he can make the block when he gets there. That’s not true of Cooper this season.

If the Cowboys want to truly get back to their elite status on the offensive line, one of two things needs to happen. They either need to insert Green back into the lineup and hope that he can stay healthy and work out the small issues in his game. Or they need to be able to find a way to run the ball consistently out of wide-zone with Jonathan Cooper in the lineup.

Which one is more likely? Probably neither if we are truly being honest with ourselves. But for the time being, expect the Cowboys to go with Cooper at left guard because he’s a more well-rounded player, despite his somewhat limited ceiling. Neither option is ideal, but Dallas knew this when they decided to allow Ronald Leary to leave in free agency. Can Cooper be good enough over the next few weeks to permanently win the job? We will soon find out.

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