Dallas Cowboys: Joe Looney, a nice insurance policy or progress stopper?

It’s team building time for the Dallas Cowboys and that means decisions must be made regarding their free agent’s to-be. Joe Looney, Dallas’ starting center in 2020, is one of those “decisions.”

Joe Looney, 30, has been an important asset for the Dallas Cowboys over the last five seasons. The reserve lineman has chipped in at both center and guard for Dallas over the years, starting 23 games during his Cowboys tour, including 12 in 2020.

Despite being one of the most tenured Cowboys still on the roster, and all of his on-the-field contributions he’s made over the years, it’s not his play, but rather his jovial personality of which he’s most known.

Teammates and coaches adored Joe from the jump. The locker room jokester was an outgoing, mood-lightening presence behind the scenes. He was everyone’s friend. Fans got a glimpse in August of 2017 when Looney paraded to the practice field wearing Ezekiel Elliott’s No. 21 jersey. Stretched to the limit, the jersey added much needed humor to media concern that Dallas top draft selection from a year ago had packed on some extra weight.

While most of Joe Looney’s time in Dallas has been as a designated reserve lineman, last season he was slated to start. Travis Frederick’s shocking offseason retirement left the Dallas Cowboys without much choice. They drafted one of the top centers on their board, but Day 3 linemen rarely hit the ground running as rookies, and Tyler Biadasz had some additional injury concerns that needed to be worked out before he could be plugged into the middle fulltime.

We’ve reached the point where Joe Looney may be a progress stopper on the Dallas Cowboys

When the rookie Biadasz did get snaps, he showed the Cowboys what they hoped they’d be getting when they drafted the former Rimington award winning lineman (goes to the best center in college). Biadasz showed them he the smarts, skills and savvy, to play center at a high level in the NFL.

Pro Football Focus named Tyler Biadasz the best rookie center of 2020 and graded his play above Looney (although, just ever so slightly). Most notably, Biadasz finished 2020 as the NFL’s best center in run-block-rate.

The question now becomes whether or not Looney is even the best back-up option available…

Joe Looney’s play last season didn’t fare quite so well. Out of 37 centers last season, Looney ranked 34th. Looney’s play recognition and effort were commendable, but his strength (or lack thereof) was exposed and his already-questionable athleticism was declining.

It’s clear Tyler Biadasz isn’t just the future of the position, but he’s also the present. So the question now becomes whether or not Looney is even the best back-up option available…

The Dallas Cowboys depth was tested to the nth degree last season when they were forced to play without 4/5ths of their expected starting offensive line much of the season. One of the bright sides of this otherwise painful situation was seeing second-year lineman, Connor McGovern, finally get some snaps.

Filling in for Zack Martin, McGovern showed he could be a viable professional player. His play graded out right about the middle of the pack (47th of 80), which is pretty good considering he never played an NFL snap until last season.

Looney’s play has declined to below replacement levels, meaning the average replacement for him should be able to slide in and do better on Day 1.

While we can’t expect McGovern to push Zack Martin (PFF’s No. 2 rated guard) or even “the other Connor”, Connor Williams, PFF’s No. 16 rated guard (out of 80), for their starting job in 2021, Williams is on the last year of his deal and opportunities in a reserve role are there across all three interior positions right away.

McGovern has experience playing center back at Penn State. Can he do it again in the NFL? I’d suspect so, at least as good as the 34th rated center did last year (reminder, that was Joe Looney). And if I’m doling out snaps to fairly evenly-rated players, I’m opting for the still-ascending 23-year old playing on his rookie deal over re-signing a declining veteran who’s on the wrong side of 30.

Now, if 2020 taught us anything it’s that you can never have too much O-line depth. But Looney’s play has declined to below replacement levels, meaning the average replacement for him should be able to slide in and do better on Day 1.

At this point, a younger and cheaper replacements are available with a similar floor as Looney, but bring a much higher ceiling.

Joe Looney is great teammate and even better man but the time has come for the Cowboys to churn their roster and that involves brining in better players with better potential. Re-signing Joe Looney would be getting in the way of progress.

The Dallas Cowboys have to find as many snaps as possible for Connor McGovern and Tyler Biadasz, but also need to upgrade the developmental talent behind them.