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The Shelf Life of Alpha-Dog NFL Position Groups

Dallas’s offensive line was the toast of football in the 2016 season. How long can it stay atop its perch?

(Getty Images/Ringer Illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer Illustration)

At this point in the NFL offseason, it’s easier to find a leprechaun than it is a groundbreaking bit of information. The first days of OTAs and rookie minicamp are normally reserved for unfounded optimism and chatter about who is and isn’t in shape, but every so often an item of intrigue creeps into the early May news cycle.

This year, one of those worthwhile nuggets concerns Cowboys offensive lineman La’el Collins and the future of what has become the NFL’s preeminent unit of blockers. In recent seasons, Dallas has ridden its five maulers up front to produce some of the most efficient offenses in football, finishing in the top five in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA in two of the past three years. Over the past few months, though, the group has experienced its first real attrition in years.

Left guard Ronald Leary, who started 47 games for the Cowboys over the past four seasons, signed a four-year, $36 million deal with the Broncos in March. Longtime right tackle Doug Free compounded that loss by retiring in April, at age 33, following his 10th season with the team. With both Leary and Free off the roster, speculation surfaced as to how Dallas would choose to replace them. Collins actually entered the 2016 season ahead of Leary on the depth chart at left guard, but a toe injury suffered last September sent him to the injured reserve, and over the ensuing weeks Leary proved to be an upgrade over the second-year man from LSU.

Collins’s experience at guard would have seemed to designate him as a logical Leary replacement, but news broke earlier this week that he’s likely to get the first crack at replacing Free as the bookend on the right side instead. That leaves former top-10 draft pick Jonathan Cooper, now in his fourth NFL stop in five years, as the man expected to get the initial shot at stepping into Leary’s spot.

Springtime offensive line shuffling may not seem like the most thrilling subject (for most people; I am a bizarre human), but in this case it speaks to a larger notion about staying power in the NFL. For the past three seasons, the Cowboys offensive line has arguably been the most dominant position group in the league, and circumstances are already threatening how long it can stay atop that perch. In Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, and Travis Frederick, Dallas still has its three All-Pro mainstays up front, but as other pieces shuffle, there’s no guarantee that the Cowboys running game will remain the ruthless machine it’s been in recent years. These days, even the most iconic groups don’t tend to stay at their peak for long.

To figure out how the league’s best position groups eventually fall apart, it’s worth first examining how they come together. In virtually every case since 2000, teams that have assembled terrifying groups in a single meeting room have done so by throwing considerable resources at that particular spot. Considering that Smith, Martin, and Frederick were all first-round picks, the Cowboys may be the best example, but they’re not the only one. Some of the top defensive units in recent years — Seattle’s Legion of Boom secondary, the 49ers’ bone-crushing linebacking corps in 2012 and 2013, and the "Williams Wall"–led Vikings front four — included at least one highly drafted, generational talent. Whether it was Earl Thomas in Seattle, Patrick Willis in San Francisco, or Kevin Williams in Minnesota, former top-15 picks have a habit of solidifying areas on a depth chart.

Mike Iupati (AP Images)
Mike Iupati (AP Images)

Like the Cowboys, the two teams that previously owned the league’s best offensive line made conscious efforts to build around that part of their roster. The Mike Singletary–era 49ers used back-to-back first-round picks on tackle Anthony Davis (11th overall) and guard Mike Iupati (17th) in 2010, adding to a line that already featured 2007 first-rounder Joe Staley at left tackle. The mid-2000s Jets made a similar investment, picking both D’Brickashaw Ferguson (fourth overall) and center Nick Mangold (29th) in the 2006 first round before acquiring former first-rounders Alan Faneca and Damien Woody prior to the 2008 campaign. Constructing a top-flight group, especially on the offensive line, requires an expensive plan — invariably, though, a little luck is involved.

In building each one of those lines, at least one undrafted free agent has come seemingly out of nowhere to emerge as a high-level starter (and in some cases, an eventual big-ticket free agent). Leary played that part for the Cowboys, current Vikings guard Alex Boone filled that role in San Francisco, and 10-year veteran Brandon Moore did the same for the Jets. This element of creating a dominant position group transcends the offensive line, as evidenced by Seattle unearthing fifth-round pick Richard Sherman and Minnesota thriving when run-stuffing nose tackle Pat Williams began playing the best football of his career at age 33.

Often, such breaks come as a result of standout player development. The Seahawks’ ability to transform late-round picks into excellent defensive backs, for example, is at least partially a byproduct of head coach Pete Carroll’s understanding of the secondary. Likewise, it’s no coincidence that current Washington offensive line coach Bill Callahan served the same role for the Jets (2008 to 2011) and Cowboys (2012 to 2014).

Just as the formula for assembling top-of-the-league position groups has been established, though, so too has the manner by which they lose their power. And for this vaunted Cowboys line, keeping its spot on the throne comes with its own set of difficulties.

One of the main reasons that the Legion of Boom and the current Cowboys line have been able to stay together for this long is that both front offices have been quick to plan for the future. Dallas gave Smith a massive contract extension about as fast as it could in 2014, following his third season in the league. At age 26, he’s now under contract at a reasonable price for roughly the next 40 years. (His deal goes through 2023, which is still ridiculous.) The Seahawks have also handed early deals to their young stars, and it’s made all the difference. Five NFL free safeties have contracts with more practical guarantees than Earl Thomas’s $25.7 million; four cornerbacks earn more in practical guarantees than Sherman and his $40 million.

Tyron Smith (AP Images)
Tyron Smith (AP Images)

Even with prudent planning, though, there’s only so much money to go around. At a certain point, it becomes impossible for teams to retain so many quality players at a single position group, especially as rivals attempt to sign members of those specific units. For instance, Byron Maxwell parlayed his time as the Legion of Boom’s fourth wheel to a six-year, $63 million deal with the Eagles that Philadelphia escaped from the moment it had the chance. Moves like this aren’t all horror stories: Iupati has given the Cardinals an added element of physicality in the run game since going from San Francisco to Arizona in 2015. And even as Minnesota’s offensive line crumbled around him last fall, Boone has been solid at guard since joining the Vikings.

When Iupati’s five-year, $40 million deal was signed two years ago, it set the market at the position. Since then, nine guards have signed contracts with a higher per-year salary. Part of that jump can be attributed to a rising cap figure ($167 million this season compared to $143.3 million in 2015), but part of it is also the result of the way these groups feed into the NFL’s copycat culture. After the Seahawks’ group of condors in the secondary took over the league, front offices began to covet taller defensive backs in a way they never had before. And as 2017 free agency made clear, the Cowboys’ recent run of success has impacted how other teams construct their rosters. The money that was shelled out to offensive linemen in March isn’t going away.

In signing Kevin Zeitler and extending Joel Bitonio, the Browns handed more than $55 million guaranteed to their guards during this offseason, not to mention their addition of free-agent center J.C. Tretter. The Lions now boast one of the most expensive right sides in football with the signings of T.J. Lang and Rick Wagner, only a year removed from drafting left tackle Taylor Decker in the first round. With so many franchises tossing never-been-seen amounts of resources at the interior of the offensive line (and as a result, the group as a whole), retaining the players who helped to make a dominant line what it was has never been more difficult.

Beyond the economic factors, players are deciding to move on from the game earlier than ever before. San Francisco’s two paramount position groups were torpedoed by the early retirements of Patrick Willis, Chris Borland, and Anthony Davis; although Free walked away from the Cowboys at 33, his retirement came as a surprise. Even Seattle’s Thomas briefly entertained the idea of retiring after breaking his leg last season before eventually choosing to come back. There’s also the lingering possibility of injury, a fate that the best members of the Dallas line have escaped up to this point. Aside from losing Smith for two games early in the 2016 season, the Cowboys’ trio of star linemen has stayed remarkably healthy.

Each one of these aspects lends itself to the same conclusion: It’s incredibly difficult to keep a position group intact that can define an entire roster. Heading into the 2017 season, there’s a chance that Collins fulfills his vast potential as a tackle and becomes an upgrade to Free on the right side. But that’s no sure thing. More than at any other position, the interplay between players on the offensive line make success a delicate balance. The turnover of even the league’s best position groups is an NFL constant, and that could lead a once invincible-looking Dallas line to start showing cracks.