Tyron Smith, La’el Collins return to Cowboys OL with mediocre PFF grades

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Dak Prescott’s triumphant return to practice on the first day of OTAs was headline news, and rightfully so, but just as critical to the Cowboys’ chances for success in 2021 will be the big bodies up front that protect him.

Left tackle Tyron Smith and right tackle La’el Collins were also back on the field on Monday for the first time in a long time, fueling further optimism for the Dallas offense heading into the season. But somehow, one noted outlet seems to be left largely unimpressed.

Pro Football Focus places Smith and Collins 22nd and 25th in the league respectively among offensive tackles in their latest positional rankings.

Smith played in just two games last season before shutting it down due to a recurring neck issue. The 30-year-old hopes to return to the form that’s earned him seven Pro Bowl nods and a reputation as one of the NFL’s dominant offensive line forces.

But even though he’s healthy again, PFF puts him outside the Top 20 entering the 2021 season.

“While he hadn’t been performing as he did from 2013 through 2016, when he ranked seventh or higher in PFF grade each year,” Anthony Treash writes, “Smith was still producing at a high level before he went down. In the three years prior to 2020, he was the 12th-highest-graded tackle in the entire NFL.”

Collins missed the entire 2020 campaign with hip problems. He’ll turn 28 before the season begins and look to build off the progress he’s made since moving to right tackle and what PFF calls “a breakout year” in 2019:

“The 2015 undrafted free agent moved from guard to tackle in 2017 and struggled out of the gate, but he showed modest growth — as reflected in his three-year PFF grades of 63.3, 71.9 and 86.4. The latest mark ranks fourth-best in the NFL.”

Perhaps it’s uncertainty regarding the health of both players that they don’t rank higher in a late-May list. Their absence in 2020 certainly compounded the problems for the Dallas offense, contributing at least in part to a rough year for running back Ezekiel Elliott and making things more difficult for whoever played quarterback after Prescott went down in Week 5.

But as Jon Machota notes in The Athletic, “with Tyron Smith, La’el Collins and [right guard] Zack Martin all healthy, this should return to being one of the NFL’s best offensive lines.”

PFF is a big believer in Martin, the six-time Pro Bowler who missed six games last season. In his ranking of the NFL’s tackles, Sam Monson calls Martin the second-best in the league, behind only the Colts’ Quenton Nelson:

“If there’s a player who runs Nelson close, it’s Zack Martin, who has continued to excel despite the Dallas offensive line collapsing around him. Martin has allowed one sack over the last two years and had earned a PFF run-blocking grade of 92.2 when he got injured in Week 12 of the 2020 campaign.”

Connor Williams is expected to compete with Connor McGovern for the left guard spot, but PFF gives the nod to Williams, ranking the 2018 second-round pick 22nd overall, with promise:

“For some time, seemingly every draft pick Dallas spent on the offensive line turned into an All-Pro starter. While Connor Williams hasn’t done that, he has developed into a good player, particularly as the line has deteriorated around him. Williams is coming off a career year in which he produced an overall PFF grade of 70.8.”

With Brandon Knight and Terence Steele also returning in reserve roles, center Tyler Biadasz still showing steady improvement, veteran Ty Nsekhe in his first year as a Cowboy, and rookies Josh Ball and Matt Farniok expected to compete, the Dallas offensive line could once again be formidable in 2021.

But just as in 2020, the health of Smith, Collins, and Martin will help decide that.

“Is the group loaded enough to overcome significant time missed by its top three starters? No. But what NFL offensive line is?” Machota asks.

“But if those three are out there for most of the season, the offensive line production should return to the high standard it has set for itself over the last decade.”

And if that happens, the mostly mediocre preseason PFF rankings won’t matter in the least.

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