As we speed towards the first preseason contest of 2013, you are hearing every day about guys like David Arkin and Ron Leary pushing through and having a legitimate shot at a starting spot along the offensive line.
Forgive me, but I won't take any of these reports seriously for another several weeks. And perhaps, even then.
We all need to remember a few things about the first few weeks of camp. 1) there isn't much along the lines of real news - meaning, with a multitude of reporters and a daily opportunity to talk with the coach at his press briefing, everything you hear will not constitute an actual story. Rather, what the media either perceives to be a potential story or in most cases, nothing at all.
And more importantly, 2) Late July and August is a time to take it very slow with veterans. This allows younger players a chance to "run with the 1s" and that allows for them to be noticed. If they do well, then people project their ideas in the media of how this could materialize. But, coaches don't always feel this way. They just know they have practices to run while Jay Ratliff is getting healthy and need bodies to make practice even possible. But, lining up for a team practice on a Tuesday in July and lining up against the Giants on September 8th is a completely different animal.
Training camp is often for experimenting with options and possibilities, but most of what you read is not real. Most of what you read is true only in the sense that we need "22 starters" in this practice and as of July 30, this is our 22. That does not have any bearing on September 8th. When push comes to shove, and when the games truly matter, then and only then will you see the spots which are actually open to competition.
So, is David Arkin a real possibility to even make the roster? - something which would be a great accomplishment for a guy still hoping to play his 1st snap in the NFL in what would be his 3rd season. Maybe. But, I don't buy for one second that he is actually in the mix to start. Remember, this is the guy who the Cowboys were routinely scratching last season when Derrick Dockery was playing, despite having almost nothing left. Then, Nate Livings did a very solid job at left guard in 2012 and I see him as an easy starter in Week 1 if all things are equal health-wise. He had his moments, but overall, Livings is the least of their issues on the offensive line. Could he be upgraded? Sure. Could he be upgraded by anything on their roster? I don't see it in 2013.
Now, right guard is another story. I have no issues at all with figuring out an alternative to Mackenzy Bernadeau there, and that is where one might project some solution from Ronald Leary (who I want to see in preseason action prove that he has developed mentally to the NFL game), Phil Costa, or Arkin. Bernadeau is nothing special from what 2012 taught us, and represents a spot where the Cowboys need better along the offensive line. So, as you are watching the preseason, key in that Livings is likely a starter if his body is holding up and that they need to figure out who the best of the rest of that group is to handle the other guard spot. The outside chance that Travis Frederick plays guard and Costa handles center is still on the board, but it sure seems that Frederick is already taking to the center responsibilities which will use his mental upside to make line calls and to make sure the Cowboys are picking up their blitzes properly.
Looking back at 2012, there is no question that in pass protection the achilles heel came from 2 spots that both could be pointed back to the mental aspect of line play. They were blitz pickup and stunt pickups. In particular, when teams decided to run stunts and games at the Cowboys, the offensive line could just not make sure that each player was switching in an easy and timely fashion. We saw this again and again and with players developing better continuity this can go away. But, this is the time of year to solve that issue and that is why you want everyone available.
But, where we should really focus - hamstring willing - is the battle at right tackle. Here, the frustrating Doug Free and Jermey Parnell should be locked in a real tussle to determine who will join Tyron Smith as bookends for the Cowboys line. Trouble is, we are still waiting for Parnell to be available due to his hamstring and this is not helping his chances.
Last December, Parnell was allowed to basically rotate at right tackle with Free after the incumbent had a disastrous night against the Eagles in which he surrendered 2 sacks to Brandon Graham and 2 penalties for good measure. This was one of his worst performances in a season that had several games Free would like to forget - Tampa Bay, Cleveland, and Chicago come quickly to mind as well.
He committed 17 penalties, which led the NFL at his position, and also conceded 6 sacks, 4 QB hits, and 41 QB hurries. It was clear that he lost confidence and when a tackle loses confidence, he then becomes reactive rather than proactive. Free also lacks some of the top level strength which you would prefer, and was never able to drop his anchor against stronger pass rushers and would get into trouble there.
And that is why Parnell is so interesting. Parnell only played 267 snaps last year (compared with Free over 1,000), but when he played he demonstrated superior strength and had very few issues. He first was thrust into action when Smith was hurt in the Cleveland game and was inserted into a game where the Cowboys OL was already under siege. That game was not his best work, but as he got acclimated, he became a real candidate to overtake Free.
In the final 4 games, they rotated the right tackle spot where Parnell was given the 2nd and 4th possessions in each half of those games. They stuck to the recipe, save for late in games where they altered the plan one time and left Free in there. Honestly, Parnell did very well, but Free also picked up his game quite a bit. It makes you wonder about rotations - something defensive lines always do, but offensive lines never do. The freshness late in the game always is given as a distinct advantage for the defense, so why wouldn't the offense try to counter it with the same tactic? Maybe this is a development for the sport in the next decade.
In watching all of Parnell's snaps recently, I felt very optimistic about his 2013 prospects. The Cowboys made a very wise signing of Parnell in 2012 for 3 years for $4 million and have him at a wonderful salary. This also put them in a fine leverage position with Doug Free and now you can better understand how they were so relaxed with the issue last spring. They liked Parnell to start at right tackle over Free, but that would require Parnell showing up healthy and ready in Oxnard, something they are still waiting for.
When they are both healthy, it seems that this is a very close battle. Parnell is so big and strong that getting around his edge is very difficult. He is also quite strong in run blocking as long as the player he is assigned to is close to him. Where Parnell gets into trouble is when he needs to get to he 2nd level and get his mitts on a smaller, quicker player. There, he resembles Frankenstein a bit, and this is a department where Free has a distinct advantage. But, for me, that is not enough to compensate for pass protection and Parnell's ability to stay out of penalty troubles.
But, you cannot have a competition without 2 players showing up for it, and that leads us back to the Parnell hamstring. He is supposedly a week away, and we will see about that. But, if you want thoughts on the opening day offensive line, it is Smith-Livings-Frederick and then, the battle at right guard and Free, until Parnell proves he has taken the spot.
But, as far as I can tell from 2012 tape, Parnell is the better right tackle. He simply has to show it.