It wasn’t long ago the Cowboys were facing quite the quandary at the tackle position. On one hand they had a young player with potential they believed in. On the other hand, the growing pains of that development were hard to escape and there weren’t any shortcuts in the developmental process to be found.
It was 2020, and Dallas was entering the season without starting right tackle La’el Collins, who eventually was ruled out for the year after a season-ending hip injury. The Cowboys had signed journeyman Cameron Erving in the offseason and many expected him to get the nod, but it filled few with a ton of hope. With no other proven depth on the roster, in the mix was a pair of undrafted reserves, Brandon Knight and Terence Steele.
Knight, a one-year veteran, appeared to be the safer option to play the left, while Steele was a rookie whose skillset better fit the right. Steele got the start at right tackle in the season opener and never gave up the post, playing in 16 games his rookie season. Knight would go on to have an adventurous season as well, replacing Tyron Smith in week No. 2 and starting nine games for the Cowboys at left tackle.
To say both young tackles struggled that season may be a bit of an understatement. While they flashed potential, they also showed their undrafted roots. Both players had pass protection issues and ranked near the bottom of the NFL in Pro Football Focus grades.
Of the 79 offensive tackles graded in 2020, Steele ranked No. 76. But the Cowboys saw something in the 6-foot-6, 310-pound tackle and it was enough for them to roll the dice with him again in 2021.
Steele showed progression in his second season, improving in both phases of the game. His pass protection was still a liability but his run blocking was making up for it. He finished the 2021 season ranked No. 55 by PFF.
This progression continued in 2022, with Steele rocketing up to No. 23 on PFF’s list. His run-blocking prowess turned to dominance and Steele graded out as the sixth-best run blocking tackle in the NFL. Before a knee injury ended his 2022 season prematurely, he was arguably the top run blocker on the Dallas line and possibly even a success story for the ages.
Will the Cowboys be able to recreate a similarly successful arc for Josh Ball?
Josh Ball scouting reports
When the Cowboys drafted Ball in the fourth round of the 2021 draft, they received mixed reviews from fans and media. Scouts loved the potential of Ball as a prospect but many found it difficult to look past his off-field issues. Fans similarly had issues moving past his sordid history.
Off-field issues that prompted a transfer from Florida State to Marshall are what ultimately appeared to cause him to fall. On pure talent, Ball was considered by many scouts as a legitimate NFL left tackle prospect. The Draft Network’s Drae Harris even comping Ball to future Hall-of-Famer, Andrew Whitworth.
Dane Brugler from the Athletic boldly said that if Ball didn’t have the off-field issues, he could have been a second-round pick. Draft guru Brandon Thorn called Ball a “major sleeper” who had all the raw traits to be a starter. He just needed time and development.
Standing 6-foot-8, 304-pounds, Ball looked the part of an NFL tackle. He was an athletic prospect with a frame that could support added mass. Elite reach and lateral movement set him apart from others and resembled the Steele profile the Cowboys followed a year prior.
Ball’s rookie season was ultimately a wash with the rookie tackle not taking a single snap in 2021. In 2022, he made his debut. After Steele went down against Houston in mid-December, Dallas turned to Ball to answer the call.
Things didn’t go well.
In just 12 pass-blocking snaps, Ball gave up a sack and a pressure (The latter resulting in a costly interception inside Cowboys territory). Soon after, the Ball experiment came to an end, with the second-year tackle only playing four more regular season snaps on offense for Dallas.
Don’t give up on him
Not since Chaz Green donned the silver and blue has player so universally united the fanbase against him. Without a single start to his name and with only 41 offensive snaps on his professional resume, some have completely closed the book on the 24-year-old tackle.
It’s a level of impatience which would have made Steele’s ascension impossible. And something the Cowboys may come to regret based on flashes of potential Ball has shown them.
Ball’s pass protection was disastrous last season. That factoid is hard to dispute. But Steele was every bit the disaster Ball was in his first starts as well.
Steele still isn’t a good pass protector. As a pure pass protector he graded as 57 of 78 in 2022. It’s an issue the Cowboys are somewhat resigned to and have generally worked around. A quick passing game and strategic double-teams resulted in 27 sacks last season. An impressive feat given Dallas was bottom-five in pass-block win-rate.
While Steele is showing improvement in pass protection year after year, he’s still operating in average to below-average territory. His dominant run blocking just makes up for it.
Ball has also flashed some dominant run-blocking ability. His 86.2 run-blocking score was the best on the Cowboys roster last season. Projected over the course of a season, it would have raked him fourth in the entire league. Granted, the sample size is small but the results are the results and it didn’t go unnoticed to Mike McCarthy.
“I thought Josh Ball has some good snaps,” McCarthy said. “He had two plays that were big plays for Houston but other than that he graded out well. He’s made a lot of progress throughout the year.”
The issues scouts pointed to when Ball was a prospect are the issues the Cowboys are trying to develop today. If Ball can follow in Steele’s footsteps and build on being an elite run blocker, his pedestrian play in pass protection could be more digestible.
On-the-job training is great if the stakes are low and a team is rebuilding, but that’s not where the Cowboys are in 2023. They can’t afford to throw Ball into the deep end if they hope to challenge Philadelphia for the NFC East crown.
Throwing an undeveloped Steele into the fire in 2020 wasn’t ideal either but at the time, options were limited, so it was necessary. In the same way, forcing Ball onto the field before he’s ready isn’t an advisable strategy heading into 2023.
If Tyron Smith leaves, the Cowboys would be wise to invest in a better swing tackle option heading into next season, yet, by no means should they give up on Ball and bury him on the depth chart. It’s safe to say Dallas is pretty happy with the way Steele turned out, in the same way they should approach Ball’s development.
Steele and Ball are comparable players. They have similar mass and length, similar strengths and weaknesses, and similar developmental arcs. If they can slowly develop Ball in the background, easing him into game situations and building consistency in his technique, they could cash in on the draft pick that was once labeled a steal.
Given all the patience Steele was afforded while he struggled to develop, the Cowboys would be wise to extend a similar curtesy to Ball who could develop into a player every bit as good.