Can he save Dallas’ offensive line?

The 2022 Dallas Cowboys have championship aspirations, based on superior defense, Dak Prescott at quarterback, an above-average backfield and a group of receivers who hope he’ll be fine without Amari Cooper and Cedrick Wilson Jr. But both in Jimmy Johnson’s heyday of the early ’90s, and in recent seasons when the franchise has been at its best, everything revolved around the offensive line.

That recent line has taken its toll on the staff, and there was no bigger blow to this season than the knee/hamstring injury that will sideline left tackle Tyron Smith for most, if not all, of next season. The Cowboys’ divisions in 2021 with and without Smith, who hasn’t played a full season since 2015, were pretty stark, and we’ve got them all here.

The point is that the Cowboys aren’t as good when Smith isn’t on their line, and he won’t be for long. To avoid too many casualties and save rookie first-round pick Tyler Smith from a starting left tackle job in the NFL that he’s totally unprepared for, Dallas signed veteran left tackle Jason Peters to a one-year deal on Monday. The Cowboys will start Peters on the practice squad until he’s fit (he was a free agent all spring training), and they’ll get him there as soon as possible.

Peters is 40 years old. This will be his 18th season in the NFL. Based on his work with the Chicago Bears in 2021, does he have enough left in the tank to be a replacement for Tyron Smith in a positive sense?

The good and the bad in pass protection.

(AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

According to Pro Football Focus, Peters allowed six sacks, five quarterback hits and 17 quarterback runs last season in 517 pass-blocking snaps. He did it at age 39, while dealing with injuries and playing in a Matt Nagy offense that should be erased from our memories.

But when you’re evaluating players, the job is to isolate players from their situations and focus on where they are in their careers. Peters’ passes sometimes featured a left tackle struggling with his kicking steps and allowing power into the pocket when he really shouldn’t. This sack allowed to Lorenzo Carter of the Giants in Week 17 was a specific example.

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When Peters is slow in his backpedal, this will also have him giving up sacks around the edge, as he did to Yannick Ngakoue of the Raiders in Week 5.

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The Cowboys may find themselves in a situation where they help Peters on the edge with extra blockers. As he showed on this rep against the Ravens, Peters can use his size at the line of scrimmage to just eclipse opposing edge-rushers right there. If you can work around the agility issues, that’s the optimal plan. Tight end Cole Kmet chipping Baltimore edge-rusher Odafe Oweh made this play work.

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And on this rep against Steelers edge man Alex Highsmith, Peters eschews the full backpedal by getting set before Highsmith attacks, allowing Peters to take him all the way around the edge. This probably wouldn’t work against T.J. Watt, but if Peters still had what it takes to erase T.J. Watt, he wouldn’t have been a free agent until today.

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As a pass-protector, Peters is still fine as long has he doesn’t have to be too much of a technician around the arc. There are adaptive strategies to offset a lack of that kind of agility, and he’s obviously smart enough to employ all of them.

Run-blocking, and power to a point.

(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Peters is a nine-time Pro Bowler, a two-time First-Team All-Pro, and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s All-2010s Team. At his peak, Peters could either demolish ends and tackles at the line of scrimmage, or get out to the second level and start hunting for linebackers and safeties. Either way, it wasn’t going to go well for your defense.

Last season, per Sports Info Solutions, the Bears averaged 4.5 yards per carry when Peters was on the field, and 4.0 when he wasn’t. That would imply that he still has a lot in the tank as a run-blocker, and the tape confirms this — you just have to know how much is in there.

As he showed on this six-yard David Montgomery run against the Vikings in Week 18, Peters is still perfectly capable of sealing rushing lanes at the second level by pushing linebackers where he wants them to go. You might not get a full slab demolition block out of him at this point, but it’s still a net gain. Peters might just lose more defenders near the end of the play.

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And on this 22-yard Khalil Herbert run against the 49ers in Week 8, Peters made like exceedingly unpleasant for edge-rusher Samson Ebukam. This is where Peters’ “old-man strength” comes in — he just takes Ebukam and turns him out to the inside.

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Peters isn’t a perfect option, but he’s good enough.

(Jeff Haynes/AP Images for Panini)

After Tyron Smith’s injury, Jerry Jones went from “We’ll just start Tyler Smith over there and take our lumps” to “We need to get somebody else in here” in a big hurry, which makes all the sense in the world. Tyler Smith may be ready for that smoke over time, but over time isn’t right now.

Peters is a right-now option. He was the best offensive tackle on the open market, there isn’t a blocking system he hasn’t seen, he can ostensibly help Tyler Smith along in his progression, and he can be a plug-and-play starter.

Will he be playing at… I dunno, 60=70% of his skills in his prime? Probably. But that’s 60-70% of a future Hall of Famer, and given what the Cowboys had to work with, this is an excellent save by the Jones boys to keep their offensive line — and their offense — on track.

 

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