For the third time in five years, the Dallas Cowboys have reset the market for an offensive line position.
In 2014, they extended left tackle Tyron Smith for what was at the time $110 million in total money over eight years, with two years left on his rookie contract. It was a deal in length and average salary per year that wasn’t seen at the left tackle position.
Two years later, they put pen to paper on a six-year extension worth 56.4 million with center Travis Frederick, a figure which escalated future contracts at the position over the $10 million-per-year mark.
Since then, the market for guards has, unsurprisingly, gone up as well, and the very best at both left and right guard are inching closer and closer to tackle money north of an $11 million average per year.
In some cases, like with Pittsburgh right guard David DeCastro (five years, 50 million) and Oakland right guard Gabe Jackson (5 years 55 million), their extensions were handled the year before each hit free agency. But more importantly, before the market was further reset with other rival deals at the position.
The Cowboys operated in this fashion with both Smith and Frederick, and continued to do so with Zack Martin. The team and the All-Pro agreed on a six year deal worth reportedly north of $80 million, making Martin the highest paid guard in NFL history.
Martin’s figure makes it over $200 million in total value between the dominant trio, and they are without a doubt dominant when all three are healthy and playing together. When football media, even general fans who watch week in and week out talk about the Cowboys, they identify as the team with a great offensive line.
They have a young quarterback and running back combo in Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott and they get plenty of attention, but that team is known for the group up front. And everyone knows they go as far as they can block for them.
The offensive line in Dallas is, to a lesser degree, what the defensive line in Cincinnati is.
The Bengals defense has effectively carried the team throughout the past two seasons when the offense regressed from unsuccessful personnel turnover. And that defense has been carried by two players on the defensive line.
Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap have accounted for 33.5 of the 63.5 sacks from the Bengals defensive line since 2016, and 12 of those sacks came from contributors no longer on the roster. Going all the way back to their first year in 2010, they’ve accounted for 125.5 of the 243.5 sacks that have come from the defensive line.
Factor in the work they put in defending the run, they’ve been a consistent two-man show on that defensive front for eight years.
There have been many complementary pieces next to them throughout the years, and few have earned second contracts with the team. This season, their best supporting cast may have been formed.
Carl Lawson and Jordan Willis should build off their respective success from 2017. Willis and third-round pick Sam Hubbard’s presence should help make Michael Johnson more effective by playing less and in a more interior role as a pass rusher.
And fifth-round pick Andrew Brown is arguably the most talented pass-rushing defensive tackle the Bengals have drafted behind Atkins since, well, Atkins was drafted.
Not all of these pieces will play to their highest level this year, but there’s enough eggs in the basket to take some pressure off of Atkins and Dunlap. But that does not equate to their importance diminished.
If the Cowboys’ actions have showed anything, it’s that you want to keep your strengths strong. This is a concept that the Bengals have shown contempt in adopting. In 2011, cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall were coming into their own and made the Bengals secondary legitimate. But they chose to extend Hall over Joseph with both becoming free agents that year, and had to survive with cheap veterans to compensate for the loss of Joseph for years afterwards.
In 2015, receivers Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu were seeking new deals and, being weapons in one of the best offenses in the league, were attractive options for the rest of the league.
Losing both pass-catchers was a reality no one wanted to accept, but it ultimately came to fruition in 2016. The team watched both leave and hit their stride in the NFC, while they’ve had struggles in the two years since replacing their natural abilities, despite heavy investment in that area.
That same year on the other side of the ball, safeties Reggie Nelson and George Iloka were also hitting the market. Like Jones and Sanu, both had more complimentary skill sets and their value varied accordingly.
The team decided the younger Iloka was the wiser investment and thus rolled the dice with him and Shawn Williams, whom they extended the year after. Fortunately this decision has seemed to pay off, but the Bengals defense has missed the ball-hawking presence Nelson brought and took with him and finally addressed the issue with the selection of Jessie Bates this past draft.
Finally, last offseason the team was on the verge of losing its two best offensive lineman in Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler. The common belief was Whitworth would be retained and Zeitler’s situation was a lot more murkier.
As it turns out, the Bengals never planned on paying Zeitler anywhere near the $12 million average per year that he received from Cleveland on the open market, and on the same day just hours before,
Whitworth took a better deal from the Los Angeles Rams. Cincinnati suffered from this more than all of the previous decisions listed, and now they’re in a similar situation again.
The consistent buzz on the subject has been that the team is indeed focused on getting both Atkins and Dunlap under new extensions before the conclusion of the offseason. And to their credit, they did this five years ago in the summer of 2013.
In July, they agreed to terms with Dunlap. In September, they did so with Atkins. The Bengals’ playoff window from 2011-15 was in large part existent because of those two. And if they want any chance of keeping the now miniscule window in front of them open, keeping their word on this matter is imperative.
It’s not a matter of cap space. When the Cowboys needed breathing room after extending Smith, they restructured his deal. When they needed more space after extending Frederick, they further restructured Smith’s deal and restructured Frederick’s deal. Has Dallas built the best team with these moves?
No, but the salary cap is as restrictive as a team makes it.
The guaranteed money is going to be the big question mark in all of this. Very rarely do the Bengals match the rest of the league in terms of total guaranteed money in second and third contracts for starters.
They tend to front-load an amount they deem appropriate and then make the remainder of the deal a “practical” guarantee in the form of a verbal promise that the length and value of the deal is the true length and value of the deal.
Because Atkins and Dunlap are 30 and 29 respectively, this practice could still work even though the guaranteed money for pass-rushers has increased so much more in the last five years, but it’ll still take some digging of their pockets.
No matter the cost, Atkins and Dunlap should both be under new deals this time next year. That’s the expectation the team has set with their own words and despite their recent history with such positional spending predicaments, that’s the bar they have to meet.
The team has invested a good amount of draft capital in pass-rushers of late, but the unit still lives and dies by the duo. Don’t buy the Bengals not being able to pay both of them and keeping a strength a true strength like the Cowboys just did.