In the final 20 days before the start of the regular season, we are counting down the top 20 players in the NFC East. For a full explanation, see this post.
No. 13 -- Tyron Smith, Cowboys OT
Smith is the youngest player on our list and one of the youngest in the entire league. He doesn't even turn 22 until December, and he's only had one year as an NFL player. But what a year it was. The Cowboys' starting right tackle for the entire 2011 season, Smith ranked as Pro Football Focus' fifth-best tackle, equally tough in the run and pass games. What makes Smith so good is his innate physical strength and ability to eliminate a defender from the play once he gets his hands on him. If you can't get past Smith on your first move, he simply has you beaten. And he showed throughout the year that the speed of the NFL game was not too much for him.
Smith moves to left tackle this season, and there's little doubt he can handle the assignment. Once he gets used to the difference in the footwork and hand placement, which is what he was working on in training camp this year, it's not going to be difficult for him to apply the same strength and athleticism that served him so well on the right side to protecting Tony Romo from the league's top pass-rushers. He has been working against DeMarcus Ware in practice every day, after all.
Some will wonder about Smith's ranking on this list in the absence of the division's other brilliantly talented young left tackle, Washington's Trent Williams. Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows I'm a fan of Williams and his potential to be one of the best in the league at his position. But I would submit that neither of his pro seasons so far has risen to the elite level of Smith's first year in the league. I have no problem believing that Williams has the ability to surpass Smith on this and other lists. But at this point, with Philadelphia's Jason Peters out for the year, Smith is the best offensive lineman in the NFC East and one of its best players at any position.
Rankings so far:
14. Brian Orakpo, LB, Redskins
15. Jason Witten, TE, Cowboys
16. Dez Bryant, WR, Cowboys
17. DeSean Jackson, WR, Eagles
18. Osi Umenyiora, DE, Giants
19. Evan Mathis, G, Eagles
20. Ahmad Bradshaw, RB, Giants