By David Helman
FOX Sports Dallas Cowboys Writer
FRISCO, Texas – The real question at this point is why the Cowboys didn’t do more to prepare for this situation.
For those who haven’t heard, Tyron Smith left practice on Wednesday night. The perennial Pro Bowler hit the turf favoring his left leg on a routine block during the Cowboys’ final practice of training camp. Given Smith’s history with injuries, everyone in the team’s indoor facility seemed to be holding their breath as he walked to the locker room with members of the medical staff alongside him.
Despite initial reports that Smith had avoided serious injury, word surfaced late Wednesday that he has a torn hamstring. The Cowboys might be without the rock of the left side of their offensive line for multiple months of the 2022 season.
At his healthy best, Smith is one of the most dominant offensive tackles in the NFL, and one of the most enjoyable to watch. He can make his job look effortless, and he goes a long way toward keeping Dak Prescott on his feet.
As previously mentioned, though, Smith’s good health stopped being something one could take for granted a long time ago. In the first part of his career, he missed just one of his first 82 possible appearances. Back problems crept up on him during the 2016 season, and that’s been a battle ever since.
By this point, Smith has missed at least three games in his past six seasons. More back issues forced him to undergo surgery and miss most of the 2020 season, and last year, bone spurs in his ankle forced him to miss six games.
It’s an unfortunate streak, and — even more unfortunately — it sounds like it’s going to continue into a seventh season.
The next question is obvious: What now? None of the in-house options look particularly enticing.
True, the Cowboys did draft Tyler Smith No. 24 overall this year with an eye on him being a franchise left tackle. Throughout the spring, team officials referred to him as a “left-side player,” suggesting that he could spend time at both guard and tackle.
The problem is that the 21-year-old has done the vast majority of his work at left guard this year, with Tyron Smith serving as the unquestioned starter at left tackle when healthy. The younger Smith did spend time at tackle in the spring, but Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy noted this month that the coaching staff wanted their rookie getting comfortable at guard. Throughout this month at training camp and in both of the team’s preseason games, Tyler Smith has played exclusively at guard.
There are still two more weeks until the season opener, so perhaps it’s possible to shift the rookie over to tackle, allowing fourth-year pro Connor McGovern to handle the left guard job. But that’s an awfully quick turnaround for a first-year player to change positions — not to mention the fact that Tyler Smith is currently nursing an ankle injury of his own.
The other options don’t inspire any more confidence. Following this year’s draft, Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones said he didn’t think his team required the services of a veteran tackle, noting the presence of youngsters Josh Ball and Matt Waletzko as the reason why.
Waletzko injured his shoulder on the first day of padded practice and just returned to the field this week. Ball has served as the primary backup at both offensive tackle spots this summer, but his performances in the preseason haven’t inspired the type of confidence Jones envisioned in the spring.
Veteran tackle Aviante Collins is on the roster and has played plenty this preseason, but he also just has five regular-season games and one start to his name — that lone start coming all the way back in 2019.
At the risk of sounding repetitive, the situation doesn’t look great.
So, what about alternatives? The Cowboys’ roughly $20 million in salary cap space is currently the third-most in the league. Some of that cap space was freed up by their decision to release longtime right tackle La’el Collins, who signed with the Cincinnati Bengals.
There are veteran options hanging around. Eric Fisher, the former No. 1 overall pick from 2013, is unemployed after starting 15 games for the Indianapolis Colts last year. Seven-year veteran Daryl Williams, who started all 17 games for the Buffalo Bills last year, is also available.
Maybe there’s even a trade to be made. Speculation was sparked recently that New England might try to deal Isaiah Wynn, the former first-round pick from the 2018 NFL Draft. Wynn has started 33 games for the Patriots at left tackle, but was recently moved to right tackle.
Which course will the Cowboys pursue? Or will they pursue one at all? The consistent theme of this offseason has been the excitement regarding the youth on this roster. If fate has forced their hand, will they stick to that message or switch things up and seek outside help?
It’s a conversation the Cowboys will need to have in the coming days — though it’s also fair to wonder why it took an injury to prompt that conversation in the first place.
David Helman covers the Dallas Cowboys for FOX Sports, providing insight and analysis on the NFL’s most visible franchise. Prior to joining FOX, David spent nine seasons covering the Cowboys for the team’s official website, DallasCowboys.com. In 2018, he won a regional Emmy for his role in producing “Dak Prescott: A Family Reunion” about the quarterback’s time at Mississippi State.
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