Dallas' Tyron Smith at No. 40 in #NFLRank

IRVING, Texas -- It took the Dallas Cowboys a while to figure out the importance of a strong offensive line, but they got it right when they took Tyron Smith with the ninth overall pick in the 2011 draft.

That worked so well that the Cowboys took offensive linemen Travis Frederick and Zack Martin in the first round the past two seasons. Many now consider the Cowboys' line among the best in the NFL, with a chance to grow into the best for a number of years.

Smith was the first pick of Jason Garrett’s tenure as coach. He was named to his first Pro Bowl last season and was a second-team All Pro. Last month he signed a $110 million contract extension that guaranteed him $40 million.

Smith, who does not turn 24 until December, said after signing the megadeal that he will "do my best not to let them down."

Smith checks in at No. 40 in ESPN’s #NFLRank list. Eight voters gave Smith a perfect 10, and only two offensive linemen had more: Joe Thomas and Alex Mack.

"We talk about building a program and building a football team, and he was the first player that we took three years ago in that draft," Garrett said. "He's just been everything we've wanted to build this program and this team around. His work ethic is fantastic. His mental and physical toughness are as good as I've been around. He just continues to grow and develop as a player. Technically, he's getting better. He's getting bigger and stronger. And he's just tough, competitive. He's what you want on your football team at a really, really important position."

During the past few years, the Cowboys have talked about wanting to run the ball more, but that never really panned out. Since making the playoffs in 2009, the Cowboys' rushing attempts have decreased in each of the past four seasons, bottoming out at 336 attempts last season.

Even with a playcaller with a passing-game bent in Scott Linehan, the Cowboys have shown more of a willingness this preseason to run the ball.

And they have run it to the left side with success. In plays run to the left tackle, the Cowboys have averaged 6.36 yards per rush this preseason. Last season, they averaged 5.28 yards per rush to the left, which was seventh-best in the NFL.

The Cowboys need Smith -- and the line -- to play at a high level in 2014 for a couple of reasons. They need to protect quarterback Tony Romo, and they need to protect the defense.

A better running game means Romo is passing less and not subject to as many hits, which is essential coming off a back surgery. A better running game means the defense won’t be on the field as much. The Cowboys’ defense lacks star power and playmakers. The hopes are low for the unit entering the season, but the offense can make life easier for coordinator Rod Marinelli by controlling the ball.

The Cowboys want Smith to be the point person.