The Dallas Cowboys were the latest NFL team to experience an unexpected retirement when center Travis Frederick said he was hanging up his cleats earlier this week.
Frederick, a first-round pick of the Cowboys in 2013, quickly became one of the league’s best blockers and many considered him to be the best center in the game. He was a Day 1 starter and did so in 80 consecutive games to begin his career, spanning from 2013-17, but missed all of 2018 after being diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare nervous system disorder. Frederick returned in 2019 and started all 16 games before announcing his retirement this week.
Along with Zack Martin, Tyron Smith and La’el Collins, Frederick was a key piece in an outstanding Cowboys’ offensive line in recent years. While Dallas had a trial run of life without Frederick in 2018, it isn’t easy to replace a player of his caliber. Frederick was named to the Pro Bowl in every season that he was healthy for aside from his rookie campaign.
The Cowboys do have some in-house options to replace Frederick, including Joe Looney who filled in for Frederick in 2018. Looney is better suited to provide depth than start and offers a low ceiling at this point in his career. Dallas also selected Connor McGovern in the third round of the 2019 draft but he missed all of his rookie season with a torn pectoral muscle.
There’s a chance that McGovern is the future of the position and Looney is the veteran insurance. However, starting left guard Connor Williams is working back from a season-ending torn ACL he suffered on Thanksgiving Day last season and either McGovern or Looney could be needed in that spot until Williams is ready.
The bottom line is the interior offensive line situation in Dallas isn’t nearly as settled as it appeared to be entering the offseason. The Cowboys may be looking at an early investment in the upcoming draft to shore things up. Let’s examine an option in each of the first three rounds that can provide upside at center in the aftermath of Frederick’s retirement.
First Round: Cesar Ruiz, Michigan
Cesar Ruiz is the best interior offensive linemen in this class with experience at both guard and center. He earned five starts as a true freshman at right guard and started all 13 games in 2018 and 2019 at center.
Ruiz is a physical blocker with excellent mobility. He not only excels at moving bodies out of the way at the line of scrimmage but he is also dynamic in space and connecting with moving targets. Ruiz can be trusted to hit blocks on the second level and execute longer pulls that add more scheme versatility.
There’s no questioning Ruiz’s anchor and ability to maintain the depth of the pocket. He easily absorbs power, leverages his hips and keeps the quarterback clean. His lateral quickness is an asset when mirroring pass rushers and when working to widen rush lanes in zone run concepts.
If Dallas wanted a high-upside option to replace Frederick and do so with its first-round selection, Ruiz is the target at 17th overall.
Second Round: Lloyd Cushenberry III, LSU
The center position requires a talented blocker and an effective communicator that is regarded as one of the leaders on a team. That’s Lloyd Cushenberry III.
Cushenberry was the anchor for LSU’s offensive line and honored with the Joe Moore Award which is given to college football’s best unit. He played a pivotal role in the Tigers’ historic offense last season. Cushenberry is renowned for his leadership and intangibles and was the first-ever offensive linemen to earn the No. 18 jersey reserved for players that display a selfless attitude and “played like a Tiger.”
Cushenberry has rare length for a center with good functional strength. His length and power are assets in pass protection and in the run game to anchor and create vertical push in the run game. He is extremely effective with his punch with good strike power, timing and placement.
Cushenberry does leave something to be desired in terms of mobility but overall offers a fairly complete skill set and projects as an impact starter. His experience last season in Joe Brady’s spread offense that often relied on five-man protections will be a major asset for him at the next level.
If Dallas were to target a center in the second round with pick No. 51, Cushenberry makes a lot of sense.
Third Round: Matt Hennessy, Temple
“Temple tough” has become a popular phrase around the Owls program and the team gives single-digit practice jerseys only to the toughest players on the team. Matt Hennessy, Temple’s starting center over the last three seasons, earned one of those coveted jerseys.
There’s so much to like about Hennessy’s game and the skill set he offers. He is technically-refined, mobile, smart and controlled as a blocker. He showcases excellent hand usage, bend footwork and processing skills. Overall, he’s polish and refined.
Finding gripes in his game is a challenge but the reality is that he’s not the most powerful blocker and he’s more of a technician. He won’t create the most vertical push in the run game but he does get his work done with technique and body positioning to seal lanes.
If the Cowboys wanted to wait a bit longer in the draft to address the center position but still come away with an exciting option, Hennessy is the way to go if he’s still on the board in the third round with pick No. 82.