FRISCO, Texas (AP) — Tyler Smith didn't have to worry about moving around on the offensive line in college, when he was on his way to being a first-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys.
After those Tulsa days ended, Smith knew versatility could be the key to a career in the NFL. The 21-year-old probably didn't envision the left-side shuffle his rookie year has become.
Smith likely will be back at left tackle for a divisional playoff at San Francisco on Sunday night, returning to the spot he inherited when eight-time Pro Bowler Tyron Smith tore a hamstring in training camp.
“It’s just lineman versatility,” Smith said. “All year, we’ve kind of been shuffled around.”
From just about the beginning.
After drafting Smith 24th overall in April, the Cowboys put him at left guard for offseason workouts, which left open the possibility of starting or backing up Connor McGovern.
After Tyron Smith's injury less than three weeks before the opener, the rookie moved to the spot the club figured he would one day take over when the elder Smith was no longer with Dallas.
Tyler Smith started the first 16 games at left tackle before center Tyler Biadasz's ankle injury led to multiple changes up front, including sliding Smith over to left guard.
Now Tyler Smith is back at left tackle after 40-year-old veteran Jason Peters injured his hip in the wild-card win over Tampa Bay.
“I couldn’t have imagined it,” Smith said of all the switching. “You don’t want to keep your head too far in the future and fill your head up with all these scenarios.”
The most significant development came when Tyler Smith didn't move at all.
When Tyron Smith was ready for his season debut in Week 15, the Cowboys decided to leave the rookie in the spot of someone the club considers a future Hall of Famer.
Tyron Smith played right tackle for the first time since his rookie season, which said everything about the job the Cowboys thought Tyler Smith did on Dak Prescott's blind side.
Dallas also didn’t move Tyler Smith after right tackle Terence Steele, an undrafted third-year player, tore an ACL 13 games into the season.
“I think his arrow keeps climbing,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “He's very bright and he’s up here every morning early. He does all the little things, too, so he’s going to be a fine, fine player for a long time.”
The Cowboys knew age and injuries were an issue with Tyron Smith when they drafted his understudy in April.
Unlike the three previous offensive linemen drafted in the first round by Dallas — including Tyron Smith and six-time All-Pro right guard Zack Martin — Tyler Smith wasn't tabbed as a walk-in starter.
Once in the lineup, though, Tyler Smith was good enough that the Cowboys never considered replacing him with Peters, who brought 17 years of experience at left tackle when he signed after Tyron Smith went down.
“It was probably the best thing for him is kind of getting thrown into the fire a little bit, have to figure it out on the fly,” Martin said. “I think that’s just going to be a great foundation for the rest of his career and his development.”
Smith, who grew up in the Dallas area, said the first sign of a future as a 6-foot-5, 320-pound NFL offensive lineman came when he punished a fellow youngster in a youth football drill.
“I don’t remember who he was,” Smith said. “I just know he was on the receiving end of something he probably didn’t want to be on.”
He has been physically dominant at times in his brief pro career, perhaps setting up a 10-year run in the spot Tyron Smith occupied for the previous decade.
Tyler Smith will always have the shuffling of 2022 as a foundation.
“Just getting those reps week in and week out throughout practice has helped me a lot,” Smith said. “Game by game, practice by practice, I’ve just been getting better and better at understanding the fundamentals of what I’ve got to do in those situations.”
He figured it would be this way in the NFL — perhaps just not to this degree.
Schuyler Dixon, The Associated Press