What Cowboys' offensive line worries mean for gamblers and Ezekiel Elliott Fantasy owners

The Dallas Cowboys believe 2018 can be a replication of 2016 after a rough year in 2017, but reality can end up becoming very different from the best-case scenario each team lays out as they build a roster throughout the offseason. Reality for the Cowboys has been cruel so far in the preseason, and it should bring into question what the Cowboys 2018 season will end up looking like. 

Put more specifically: the Cowboys' offensive line is falling apart before our very eyes, and it could have bad results for the team in the coming season. Let's look at what's happening and break it down from a Fantasy and gambling perspective. 

The injuries

All of this started in a fairly inconspicuous manner, with All-Pro guard Zack Martin pulling to his right on a toss sweep play in the Cowboys' Week 2 preseason game. But following the play -- in which he took a low hit to the knee courtesy of Dre Kirkpatrick's helmet -- Martin remained on the ground, before limping to the sideline and spending 10 minutes in the medical tent. Jerry Jones said the team was "optimistic" about Martin's injury, but it turns out that simply meant they wouldn't lose him for the season.

It is still believed Dallas could have Martin ready for Week 1 in Carolina, but he is dealing with a hyperextension of his left knee and a bone bruise. Rushing back to play with a bum knee is how things go sideways. It wouldn't be surprising to see him on the sidelines against the Panthers

Far more concerning is the issue Travis Frederick's dealing with. The All-Pro center, also a former first-round pick, is out indefinitely while battling a rare auto-immune disorder called Guillain-Barre syndrome. "Indefinitely" is a purposely vague term. It would be more surprising if Frederick was able to play the first week of the season than it would be if he missed the entire year to me. It's great for his personal life and long-term health that the Cowboys caught this, but it could ultimately create a pretty huge hole in the offensive line. (ESPN's Todd Archer, who covers the Cowboys, dealt with the same disorder as a teenager and wrote about his experience here; it's worth a read and shows how tough a recovery it might be.)

And speaking of Archer, he reported that La'el Collins, the Cowboys' starting right tackle, was spotted limping at camp on Thursday. Take a look at the offensive line the team had out there with Tyron Smith (more on him in a second) missing practice:

Yikes. And, again, this is looking at life without Tyron Smith. There's no reason to think he will miss significant time, but we saw last year what happened when he did: Dak Prescott was under fire, giving us reason to believe it's Smith who might be the most important player on the Cowboys. He is a freakishly-sized human being who has a history of battling back injuries. The Cowboys need him to be completely healthy.

That's because Dallas' identity -- one they built through the draft in very impressive fashion -- is their offensive line. 

They went 13-3 in 2016 because the line destroyed people and Ezekiel Elliott ran wild. Last year a combination of Elliott's suspension/legal issues with the NFL and a sneaky level of attrition (Ronald Leary left) on the line caused Dallas' offense to stagnate. The Cowboys offense went from third in Football Outsiders DVOA to 10th. They were still good, but not nearly as consistent, and the trickle-down effect of the offensive line struggling and Zeke not playing was Dak Prescott pressing to make plays and ending up in a regression season.

If they have multiple key offensive linemen miss significant time, it is going to have a negative impact on some of the skill-position guys, regardless of what the current guys say. 

Let's look at that impact.

Fantasy implications

For starters, there's Ezekiel Elliott. Elliott is considered part of the "Big Four" running backs in Fantasy football this year, along with Todd Gurley, Le'Veon Bell and David Johnson. I had Elliott No. 2 on my list of those guys for this season (behind David Johnson!) prior to these injuries unfolding, but I've bumped him down over the last few days. 

I'm not burying Elliott or refusing to draft him, but I will unequivocally take all three of the other guys and Steelers wideout Antonio Brown over Elliott at this point because of the offensive line. That's not a knock on Elliott's vast skillset, but if the offensive line is shredded, he won't see the massive gaps he was seeing as the Cowboys' offensive line was knocking people out of their boots back in 2016.

But don't just listen to me: I also checked in with CBS Sports senior Fantasy writer Dave Richard to get his take on Elliott as we head into the third week of the preseason. (Many drafts will be happening this weekend, but Elliott and his starting offensive line will be sitting down, as Jones said he wants to wrap up preseason participation.)

"It's getting tough to love Elliott given the sudden O-line issues. Frederick might need months to recover, Martin's knee could be a season-long issue, Connor Williams hasn't looked great, La'el Collins has an ankle injury and Tyron Smith has significant back concerns," Richard noted. "That's the whole dang starting offensive line!

"To be fair, the only one who's legitimately at risk to miss a lot of time is Frederick. I want to see how his replacement, Joe Looney, fares before I reconsider my position on Elliott, who by the way is a hell of a playmaker regardless of the line. A bad offensive line will probably mean less efficiency but it could lead to more receptions, which wouldn't hurt things."

Gambling implications

Now is the time for laying down bets on season-long wagers and for eying the initial Week 1 lines. The Cowboys might present some value, although perhaps not in the way you expect. 

My suggestion right now with Dallas is to fade them, and to do so fairly aggressively.

The Cowboys are always a public team, so the number on Dallas is pumped up a little bit, expecting that people will pay up to put their wager in on "America's Team." And these injuries aren't to "stars," per se, but to guys in the trenches.

When Eagles backup quarterback Nick Foles suffered a shoulder injury during the preseason, the Westgate -- and just about every sportsbook or offshore site -- yanked down Philly's Week 1 line as well as the season-long lines for the Eagles. 

I would posit, and feel comfortable doing so, that Travis Frederick is significantly more important to the Cowboys' chances in 2018 than Foles is to the Eagles' chances this season. All due respect to the reigning Super Bowl MVP, but if he does play all 16 games the Eagles are already in trouble.

Frederick is good enough and that big a factor for the Cowboys to have a major impact. But you look at the price for Dallas and it's stayed the same in terms of their win total: 8.5, with the under slightly juiced at -120 over at Sportsbook.ag. (You have to bet $120 to win $100.)

Their playoff odds are "Miss Playoffs (-170)" at Sportsbook.ag and -180 on the Westgate's app. The Cowboys were underdogs (+140) to make the playoffs before these injuries, which means their win total and the playoff odds don't necessarily match up. In theory if they go over the 8.5-win total are they going either be a playoff team or lose a tiebreaker to get in the playoffs, unless the NFC is just crazy top heavy and stacked.

Dallas is +360 to win the NFC East, but they've been the second biggest favorite all along. Those odds will vary depending on where you shop, but the Cowboys haven't seen a significant dip in the 24 hours since these injuries popped up.

This isn't to suggest a Frederick injury/illness should completely alter the betting market, but if this is Elliott that gets hurt, the Cowboys are off the board and severely downgraded when he returns. Again: we've seen that Dallas can produce offensively without Elliott -- even if it's less efficient -- but there are serious questions about how this team will perform without multiple pieces of its offensive line, should it come to that. 

Which is to say: I have no interest in their odds to make the playoffs. I wouldn't want to bet on their odds to miss because the juice is high. I like the value of the Giants and Redskins to win the division better. And if I'm taking a side on the Cowboys, it's their under on 8.5 wins.

Overreacting in the preseason can be dangerous, but when a team's strength is in one of the trenches and the strength has a chance of becoming a weakness thanks to lingering injuries, that's an opportunity fade.  

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Will Brinson joined CBS Sports in 2010 and enters his seventh season covering the NFL for CBS. He previously wrote for FanHouse along with myriad other Internet sites. A North Carolina native who lives... Full Bio

Our Latest Stories