THE WULF DEN: POSITIONAL PREVIEW – OL JULY 27, 2004 This is the third part of an eight-part preview of the positional battles Cowboy fans can look forward to in training camp beginning July 31st. In this third segment, we will explore the offensive line, where the right side of the line is in flux and the left side may remind us of the glory years. Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones was recently quoted as saying that, if they didn’t get solid play from the offensive line, QB Vinny Testaverde wouldn’t have a chance to compete for the starting job. That’s only the tip of the iceberg. If there’s one thing that the Dallas organization and Cowboys’ fans both know beyond a shadow of a doubt, it is that this team will go just as far as their offensive line will take them. The #1 ranked defense in the NFL will keep you in nearly every game, but it takes an offense that can dominate the time of possession to win those games. It takes a passing game that can move the ball downfield when the opportunities present themselves, especially late in the 4th quarter when the game is on the line. It takes a running game to eat up those yards along with the clock, to get you those few tough yards when you need them for a 1st down or a score. None of that is possible without an offensive line that can consistently win the battle of the trenches. When the Cowboys were in their Super Bowl years, everyone celebrated the stars. Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith. Michael Irvin and Jay Novacek. Charles Haley and Deion Sanders. And they deserved it, as it was their efforts that shone game in and game out. But anyone who thinks they got that done without the likes of Mark Stepnoski, Mark Tuinei, Kevin Gogan, Nate Newton, and Erik Williams—not to mention countless others along the offensive line—simply doesn’t know about football. Do we have the makings of that kind of dominant offensive line on the roster? Possibly. Possibly not. We have a couple of players that we know are that caliber if they are healthy and motivated. And we also know that we have several young players that could develop into top-level players. The real questions are: 1) what can we expect this year, and 2) what will it mean for the future of the franchise? As the Cowboys prepare to head to Oxnard, let’s see if we can find the answers to those questions as we look at the individual players, and the O-line as a unit. Offensive Tackle Flozell Adams Two years ago, Adams had a terrible season, and many fans were ready to see him hit the road as a free agent. You could hear the screams around the country, however, when the Cowboys instead signed him to a five-year, $25 million deal. We just knew that it was going to come back and bite us. Fortunately for us, Parcells and JJ knew more about what they were going to get than we did. Last season, Adams was the premiere offensive lineman on the team, and one of the best in the league, earning a trip to the Pro Bowl. And nothing has happened during the offseason to suggest that we can’t expect a similar performance next year. And, should the play of the rest of the line improve, he could be even better. Torrin Tucker The Cowboys used a second round draft pick this year on USC’s Jacob Rogers, whom I will discuss shortly. But the man he has to beat out for the starting job at RT is Torrin Tucker. Tucker was one of the highest rated undrafted rookies last year, and the Cowboys brought him in and moved him from G to OT. There, he backed up Ryan Young and Kurt Vollers, but eventually got to start as well. And, although he only has limited experience either in the league or at that position, many believe this experience will enable him to give Rogers a run for his money. Parcells is very high on Tucker, and the battle for the starting position should be intense. Whoever loses the battle will be the primary back-up, but both should make the roster, barring injuries or other unforeseen circumstances. Jacob Rogers Drafted out of USC in the second round, Rogers is not only making the transition from college to the NFL, but from the left side of the offensive line to the right side as well. Those two factors may well give Tucker the early advantage. But by all reports, Rogers is very smart, and should be able to pick up the offense smoothly. So the real question will be how long it will take him to adjust to the difference in blocking schemes on the right side of the line. Even if he doesn’t win the starting position—which many expect him to do—he will be a high quality back-up, and the Cowboys could be set at this position for years to come. Kurt Vollers Vollers began the season as a back-up last year, but got a number of starts at RT after Ryan Young’s knees made him ineffective. He has also shown that he can be a solid back-up on both sides. He’ll start training camp as Adams’ back-up on the left side, and will stay there barring an injury to Adams or something disastrous by both Rogers and Tucker. Being able to play both sides, however, makes him very valuable. Dave Volk Volk has been on the practice squad for two years, and spent the summer in Europe, where he played very well. The problem is that he is no longer eligible to make the practice squad, so he either has to make the roster or find himself looking for work. Unfortunately for him, I think he’ll be the victim of a numbers game, and his only real hope of making the roster lies in a season-ending injury to one of the top OTs ahead of him on the depth chart. Javier Collins This former DT has been a project for a couple of years, but has contributed almost nothing. He played in Europe last year, and looked lost more often than not in the games I watched. He hasn’t looked any better in a Cowboy uniform, and I expect he’s only around for training camp because they need another person at the position. Likely won’t make it past the first round of cuts. Guard Larry Allen Many people thought that Larry Allen wouldn’t be in Dallas for training camp this year. The Cowboys did, in fact, give him permission to seek a trade, and he visited Detroit and showed interest in Oakland. In fact, Detroit was ready to trade one or more picks to acquire him. But Allen didn’t really want to leave Dallas. So he refused to re-negotiate his contract, thus rendering any possible trade with any team a moot point. He worked out on his own in Dallas for awhile, until, finally, he and Parcells had a meeting of the minds. The main disagreement had been in conditioning, and Parcells’ desire for Allen to work on speed and endurance rather than pure strength training. Without revealing the exact nature of their discussions, the two reached an accord, and Allen has been getting into shape ever since. In fact, most reports say that he looks better than he has in many years. If that’s the case, the left side of the O-line is going to be as monstrous as it ever was in the Super Bowl run. Andre Gurode Two years ago, Andre Gurode was the latest offensive lineman taken by the Cowboys with a second round pick that was expected to step in and start sooner rather than later. And he played fairly well, even under the less than desirable blocking system run by the previous administration. Last year, he took a step back, even being benched for a start as Parcells sent a message loud and clear. Whether he heard that message or not will determine his fate. But the Cowboys didn’t put all of their eggs in one Gurode-sized basket, drafting LSU G Stephen Peterman in the third round as both an insurance policy and as a challenge. This should be another outstanding battle in training camp, assuming Gurode has taken the offseason seriously. If he has, he should retain his starting job. If he hasn’t, Peterman is hungry and will take it from him. Stephen Peterman Drafted in the third round to compete for the starting position at RG—possibly even as insurance for Larry Allen’s postponed departure—Peterman has the temperament of all great interior offensive linemen. In fact, he’s been described by many as having a nasty streak. If there’s one characteristic that would make you think of a Parcells-type offensive lineman, it’s a nasty streak. He should push Gurode as hard as he can handle, and has an outside shot of taking the starting spot away from him. Even if he doesn’t win the starting spot, he’ll make the roster and provide solid depth, barring injury. He’ll continue to push Gurode next year, and could eventually replace Allen down the road. Matt Lehr Lehr was the starter at C last year after rookie Al Johnson had a season-ending injury in training camp. But he is not expected to play C this year. Of course, all things could change, but the plan is for Lehr to be the primary back-up to Allen on the left side, allowing Johnson, Gennaro DiNapoli, and Tyson Walter to battle it out for the starting position at C. Lehr played G in college, and has filled in at the position from time to time in the NFL. He’s not really a starting caliber player game in and game out, but is an above average player that can provide solid depth at multiple positions. Demingo Graham Signed in the offseason, Graham is a 5-year veteran with 27 starts under his belt at multiple positions across the offensive line. He was brought in to solidify the depth and enhance the competition, and he should do so in training camp. He likely will have to beat out Matt Lehr for a roster spot though, and his best hope may be a long-term injury to someone else on the O-line. Tango McCauley McCauley was regarded as one of the best offensive linemen in the Canadian Football League last year, and received a $100,000 signing bonus to come join the Cowboys. But he has his work cut out for him if he expects to make the roster. His best hope may be the practice squad, but it begs the question of why he would leave a leading spot on a CFL roster to potentially be on an NFL practice squad. A long shot for the roster, barring some significant injuries. Darrick Sanders Sanders is a small school prospect who will likely struggle as he moves up to the NFL level. Could be the final player released prior to training camp, and is a prime possibility for the practice squad. Of course, it is sometimes the small school prospects that develop into big-time players, so he can’t be completely ruled out as a long-term prospect. Thomas Herrion Herrion wasn’t drafted, and wasn’t even signed in the original surge of undrafted rookie signings. Instead, he was invited to a rookie workout weekend for a tryout, and showed enough to be invited back and signed to a contract. He, too, is a long shot to make the roster, and his best hope may be the practice squad. Center Al Johnson Johnson won the starting position as a rookie last year after only a couple of weeks, only to go down with a season-ending injury that put him on IR and required micro-fracture surgery. That type of surgery has produced only limited results in other football players, so only time will tell if he can regain his old form. But he is ahead of schedule in his rehab, and the Cowboys are increasingly confident that he will be able to come in and win the competition at C. If he does, the interior of the offensive line is going to be the best it’s been since Mark Stepnoski was in Dallas…the first time. If he doesn’t, DiNapoli will have the best chance to start, assuming he can stay healthy. Gennaro DiNapoli DiNapoli was signed last year as a free agent to a one-year deal after he was released by Tennessee. He came in and was just starting to contribute when he went down with an injury. In the offseason, the Cowboys re-signed him, both to provide insurance against Johnson’s return and to provide depth on the interior of the O-line. In his favor are his experience and his ability to play multiple interior O-line positions. Against him is a recent injury—a stress fracture to his foot that will force him to miss the first week or so of training camp—allowing both Al Johnson and Tyson Walter to get an early jump on him. I think he’ll make the team, but he’ll have to come back strong and stay healthy for the rest of camp. Tyson Walter Drafted a couple of years ago, Walter has been called one of the smartest offensive linemen on the team. I don’t know about that, but he has proven able to play all five positions on the line, albeit not at the level of a starter. The one position he has had some starts at—C—is where he will either make this roster or not. His versatility will help him, as will the head start he’ll get over DiNapoli. But the numbers are working against him, and he’ll be pushing to claim the last offensive line spot on the roster. Closing Thoughts The offensive line is shaping up into a group to watch in training camp, as at least three battles will be waged for starting positions. At LT, Flozell Adams is the entrenched starter, and Vollers is likely the back-up—barring a run by Collins or Volk, which I don’t expect. At LG, Larry Allen is looking to return to his old form, and Lehr and Graham will battle it out for the back-up position. At C, Johnson is the early favorite, with DiNapoli likely edging out Walter for the back-up position. At RG, Gurode and Peterman will battle it out tooth and nail, with the early edge going to Gurode. At RT, Rogers and Tucker will fight it out, and I’ll go against the grain and say that Tucker has the early edge. The rest of the linemen, as well as those who lose the back-up battles listed, above, will try to convince the coaching staff to keep an 11th lineman. And, for those who are eligible, they’ll be pushing to earn a spot on the practice squad—or on another team’s roster. If things go as expected, and the line can stay healthy, this could be the most dominant—and the deepest—offensive line since 1995 when the Cowboys won their last Super Bowl. Does that mean they’d be bound for the championship game this year? Nope. But it does mean that they’d have the horses in place to win the games, rather than just having the defense to keep them close. Wulfman Comments? Send a private message to Wulfman on this site.