PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett is aware that his team didn't sign the biggest-name, highest-pedigreed offensive linemen available on this year's free-agent market. That wasn't the goal.
"None of these guys were brought in and told, 'You are the anointed starter,'" Garrett said Wednesday morning at the NFL owners meetings. "They're here to create competition on our team, and we feel like they're the right kinds of guys, individually as people but also with their talent. They can come in and compete for those spots and make us a better football team."
The newcomers are guards. The Cowboys like both of their starting tackles, though they are switching their roles, with Tyron Smith slated to move to left tackle and Doug Free back to right tackle in 2012. But where they really struggled last year was on the interior of the line. So they signed Mackenzy Bernadeau from Carolina and Nate Livings from Cincinnati, and they're throwing them into the mix with the two guards -- David Arkin and Bill Nagy -- they drafted last year along with centers Phil Costa and Kevin Kowalski, and they're going to see what happens.
On Bernadeau, Garrett had this to say:
"He's a guy that we liked coming out. He's a young guy from a small school who we feel has the physical traits to be a really good player in this league. He has not been a consistent starter for [Carolina]. He has been a starter, but he's had some injuries and some different things that he's dealt with. We're just excited about the kind of kid he is and the upside that he has. So we feel like putting him into the mix will help our team."
And on Livings, this:
"Nate had been a starter the last couple of years in Cincinnati. He's a big guy. He played at LSU. And he's one of those guys who was a college free agent and who had to really earn his way in the NFL. When we put the tape on, we just liked how he played. And we feel like, if you bring a guy like that in as well, he can get infused into our roster and hopefully create some competition up there."
Neither of the new guys is looked at as a potential solution at center, so that position is likely to come down to Costa and Kowalski and possibly Nagy if they don't add anyone else. But Garrett's point is that the Cowboys have enough bodies at those interior positions that it's fair to expect a strong offensive line to emerge. The players are young enough that, assuming they do find the right five-man mix, the line can grow together over the coming season and seasons and become a strength of the team. There are no guarantees, of course, but that's the hope and the plan, and the Cowboy have hand-picked some guys they believe can help produce those kinds of results.
Garrett also echoed the sentiment that owner Jerry Jones articulated the day before in a session with Dallas-area reporters here -- namely, that the work they've done on the offensive line through last year's draft and this year's free agency makes it more likely that they'd take a defensive player in next month's first round than an offensive lineman such as Stanford guard David DeCastro.
"We'd have to take into consideration that we've done pretty well in free agency relative to our offensive line," Garrett said. "We'd have to take that into consideration if we had the alternative of taking defense. So you're not off-base if you ask whether it's likely that we would take a defensive player."