The latest in ESPNDallas.com's position-by-position look at the Cowboys is the one for which I've been waiting -- the one about the interior offensive line. Calvin Watkins breaks down who they've got, what they need and what things could look like at guard and center for the Cowboys in 2012. Coupled with Tim MacMahon's installment on the offensive tackles from last week, this addresses one of the most important aspects of the roster:
Jerry Jones said the evaluation process of these two positions needs to get better. The Cowboys overestimated the talent level of the guards after training camp, going with younger players who proved to be inconsistent. The health of three veteran guards raised more questions.
This is the key, as it is with every team this time of year: self-evaluation. The Cowboys need to make an honest assessment of what they have at guard and center, and whether it's what they need going forward. We seem to have just witnessed a season's worth of evidence that Phil Costa isn't the answer at center, so the question then becomes whether Kevin Kowalski or Bill Nagy or David Arkin can be, and if so, how soon? It seems likely they'll bring back Kyle Kosier, since he's a leader on the line and has, in recent years, been a big part of the development of Tyron Smith and Doug Free, but what of the other guard spot? Can someone from last year's group of rookies slide in and play right away in 2012? Or do they need to find answers on the free-agent market or in the draft.
Personally, if I were the Cowboys, I wouldn't take an interior lineman in the first round. I just feel like there's value to be had at those spots in later rounds (the Eagles, for example, found their starting center in last year's sixth) and Dallas' needs at cornerback and pass-rusher are pressing enough to warrant first-round action.
Once they're done restructuring contracts, the Cowboys could have about $20 million in cap space, and if I were them I'd try and bring in a veteran guard like Carl Nicks or Ben Grubbs -- or a center if they feel that's a more pressing need -- and then mix and match with that Arkin/Nagy/Kowalski/Costa group in the offseason to figure out exactly what they have there. It's not unrealistic to believe they have a starting center and potential Kosier replacement in that group, and adding someone like Nicks or Grubbs would reduce the pressure on all of the youngsters to perform right away.
I agree with Tim that they're fine at starting tackle. Smith is a stud, and I think Free is a good player who had a bad season. Whether they keep Free at left tackle and Smith at right or whether they switch them up, they should be okay at those spots. But they need to lock some things down in the middle of that line, where they struggled in 2011. And I think free agency might be the best place to start.