That life is about to start a lot sooner than the Cowboys had hoped with Smith suffering a torn left hamstring that could force him to miss multiple months, sources told ESPN.
How the Cowboys handle Smith’s absence, perhaps through November, depending on further evaluations of the injury he suffered in Wednesday’s practice, will determine if his potential return later in the season will be the most prudent course of action.
Replacing Smith is not easy.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Smith has the highest run block win rate (78.6%) over the past four seasons (minimum 900 run block plays). Over the past five seasons, running back Ezekiel Elliott has averaged 4.5 yards per carry with Smith on the field and 4 yards with him missing. In that same time span, 12% of Elliott’s runs of 10 yards or more have come with Smith on the field; 9% without him.
In the passing game over the past two seasons, the Cowboys have averaged 7.8 yards per attempt with Smith and 7.1 yards without him. The sack rate goes from 4.2% with him to 6.2% without him.
For his career, the Cowboys are 17-16 without Smith, including a 4-2 mark last season when Terence Steele started at left tackle.
What can the Cowboys do?
Begin the future now and start Tyler Smith at left tackle
Smith split his work in the spring between guard and tackle, but during training camp and in the first two preseason games he exclusively played left guard as he competed with Connor McGovern. On Wednesday, Mike McCarthy said McGovern would be the starter if the season started now, as Smith is dealing with an ankle injury that kept him out the last two days.
At Tulsa, Smith started 21 games at left tackle the last two seasons. He was flagged 16 times last season (12 holding penalties), and it might not be the fairest move to move him back to tackle with not many practices before the Sept. 11 season opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Rearrange the offensive line
They opted to cut La’el Collins in the offseason, in part because they felt Steele was ready to take the right tackle spot. He started six games at left tackle last season and has started 21 games at right tackle in his first two NFL seasons.
He is capable of playing the left side, but he has not taken any work there this summer.
Martin played right tackle in 2020 only after the Cowboys ran out of workable options, and he suffered a calf strain. He is one of the best guards in football but showed he could handle the right tackle spot in his brief work there. It’s not ideal, but, again, life isn’t fair sometimes.
Next man up with Ball or Waletzko
Ball was a fourth-round pick in 2021 from Marshall and did not play a snap last season because of an ankle injury. Waletzko was a fifth-round pick in 2022 from North Dakota and missed most of training camp because of a shoulder injury that will eventually require surgery.
The Cowboys live in a “draft and develop” world these days, but choosing to go with untested tackles to protect quarterback Dak Prescott’s blind side seems to be a gamble.
Make a trade or sign a free agent
Always easier said than done, but there are some veteran free agents available who could be palatable, especially at this juncture of the summer. Eric Fisher started 15 games at left tackle for the Indianapolis Colts last season. He was a Pro Bowler for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2020 but suffered a torn Achilles in the playoffs. He is 31.
The Cowboys know Jason Peters well, having competed against him for so long when he was with the Philadelphia Eagles. He started 15 games at left tackle last season for the Chicago Bears, but he is 40 years old.
According to reports, the New England Patriots have considered dealing former first-round pick Isaiah Wynn, who started 33 of the 34 games he has played after missing his rookie season. He is scheduled to make $10.4 million this season. While the Cowboys have the necessary salary-cap space to make a move, the price to get him could be too high.