Dallas Cowboys stick with old-school plan of fortifying O-line, D-line

FRISCO, Texas -- For all of the flash and style that surrounds the Dallas Cowboys, they really have an old-school approach.

As the NFL adapts to the college game with spread-out offenses and the defenses needed to combat that, the Cowboys have followed their own formula -- especially during the 2019 NFL draft.

"Every week it starts up front," coach Jason Garrett said. "Don't care how good your quarterback is, how good your receivers are, if the offensive line can't protect and give him time, then he's not going to be every effective. Don't care how good your running back is, if your offensive line isn't good, he has no chance. And similarly on the other side. If you've got the greatest defensive backs on the planet and linebackers in the National Football League, if we get controlled up front and the defensive line can't hold up, then you're not going to have a chance to win the game.

"So we value that. We've always valued that and we'll continue to do that going forward."

On the draft's second day, Dallas had chances to improve other perceived weaknesses, such as those at safety, cornerback, tight end, backup running back or wide receiver. But with their top two picks, the Cowboys selected defensive and offensive linemen.

The Cowboys felt they had covered themselves in free agency, so they could go any direction they wanted in the draft based on how things fell.

Defensive tackle was not a pressing need, but Maliek Collins is entering the final year of his contract and has dealt with injuries. They added Christian Covington in free agency, but he is more of a nose tackle than under tackle.

In the second round, they selected UCF defensive tackle Trysten Hill with the No. 58 overall pick -- over a safety such as Juan Thornhill, who was a visitor to The Star just like Hill.

Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli met with Hill at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis in February. He flew to Orlando the night before UCF's pro day and met with Hill. He put him through the workout. They spoke again at The Star earlier in April. A week before the draft, Hill called Marinelli just to chat.

Though some teams may have had concerns over the issues Hill had with the new coaching staff at UCF, the Cowboys felt more confident in the reports they received from Scott Frost, who is now the head coach at Nebraska.

"It's unbelievable [how hard he plays]," Marinelli said. "You'd be pressed to see any guy playing that hard. At just about any position. It's every down. His motor's running. It's just something when you see that, that kind of reflects character, football character, I would say. It just kind of hit and his movement's really everything you're looking for. And he's ornery."

Interior offensive line was not a pressing need either, especially with Travis Frederick returning from an autoimmune disease that kept him off the field in 2018. But Joe Looney is entering the final year of his contract, and the impending large contract right tackle La'el Collins might command in free agency next offseason could force the Cowboys to move Connor Williams to right tackle.

In the third round, the Cowboys took Penn State's Connor McGovern, who had a higher draft grade on Dallas' board than Hill, according to sources. McGovern started 35 games in three seasons at guard and center.

"I've been watching them [the Cowboys] since I got to college as an O-line unit at Penn State," McGovern said. "We would always watch their chemistry and how well they played together, and tried to model our game after that."

Before Garrett took over as head coach full-time in 2011, the Cowboys had last used a first-round pick on an offensive lineman in 1981. In 2011, they took Tyron Smith in the first round, followed by Frederick in 2013 and Zack Martin in 2015. Collins was a first-round talent but fell out of the draft because of an unforeseen legal issue and his agent threatening he would consider sitting out his rookie season. In 2017, the Cowboys took Williams in the second round to be their left guard.

In 2013, Marinelli's first year as defensive line coach, the Cowboys were signing defensive linemen on a Tuesday and needing them to play that Sunday. Since then, they have used a first-round pick (Taco Charlton), second-round pick (DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory, Hill) and third-round pick (Maliek Collins) on defensive linemen.

In the fifth and seventh rounds of this year's draft, the Cowboys selected two more defensive ends in Miami's Joe Jackson (24 sacks) and Oregon's Jalen Jelks (15 sacks) to potentially offset the loss of Gregory to an indefinite suspension.

"If you think about six or seven years, every year we've done a nice job in fitting guys in," Marinelli said. "We've got a couple of guys in free agents we really like. Some of these guys have kind of grown in, so the attitude is there. And the competition's going to be there. You have to have that."

Seven of the top 10 highest-paid salary-cap figures on the Cowboys' roster for 2019 are offensive and defensive linemen, led by Smith at $15.545 million. Lawrence signed the most expensive contract in team history earlier in April, worth $21 million annually and with $65 million guaranteed.

At some point, quarterback Dak Prescott will top those numbers, and wide receiver Amari Cooper and running back Ezekiel Elliott are expected to sign highly lucrative extensions within the next calendar year.

But the Cowboys' intention is clear: keep their lines strong.

"That's where you want to be strong on the fronts. At the end of the day with the offensive line and the defensive line, that's where you want to be physical," executive vice president Stephen Jones said. "That's where we want to dominate. And if you can dominate those fronts, then good things happen."