OXNARD, Calif. - The Dallas Cowboys are exceedingly pleased with the return-to-top-shelf skills of starting tackles Tyron Smith and La'el Collins. And privately, they are exceedingly concerned with who in the 2021 NFL regular season will serve as their swing-tackle backup.
That concern is now exacerbated with the news that rookie offensive tackle Josh Ball is on the shelf with what appears to be a high-ankle sprain.
Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy says the fourth-round draft choice will miss “multiple weeks,'' likely derailing any chance that Ball - who despite behavioral issues in college does have size, athleticism and some pedigree - will be in the Week 1 mix.
Tyron Smith and La’el Collins essentially experienced lost years in 2020, but both are back following season-ending surgeries and are working in this training camp at a high level. If one of them does go down ... how big will the gap be between them and their replacement?
NFL teams, including the Cowboys, make a big deal of who serves as the backup QB. (In Dallas, with Garrett Gilbert winning the job behind Dak Prescott, maybe they don't make a big-enough deal of it.) But left tackle, Smith's spot, might be the sport's second-most-important position.
Which brings us to that gap.
In the offseason, the Cowboys signed veteran tackle Ty Nsekhe. He's got some skins on the wall, but was unimpressive in Thursday’s Hall of Fame Game preseason loss to Pittsburgh.
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Dallas will be getting reinforcements soon, with a Prescott-to-Gallup connection something to look for at practice this week. But the coming means two are going to IR.
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Brandon Knight and Terence Steele as the primary backups? They got their baptism last season by being elevated to starting games. The previous coaching staff liked Knight. This coaching staff likes Steele. But none of these guys have earned much of an in-game reason to be "liked'' - and that includes the controversial Marshall product Ball. He wasn’t able to play in the Hall of Fame Game, so in addition to the injury, the Cowboys cannot know exactly what they have here when he is ready.
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Another option is to do what Dallas did late last year in making All-Pro right guard Zack Martin the "emergency tackle.'' Indeed, shuffling bodies around in preparation for change is already happening here in Oxnard, with left guard Connor Williams taking snaps at center, the idea being that maybe Connor McGovern is a better player than center Tyler Biadasz - and so the ol' "Best-5'' logic might apply, with Williams moving to the middle and McGovern taking over at left guard.
But in the end, it's not the first five that might give Dallas its O-line problem. It's that sixth guy, the swing tackle behind Tyron Smith and La’el Collins, who needs to emerge.