Doug Free has been a consistent and fortifying member along the offensive line the past two seasons. In 2009, he replaced Marc Columbo at right tackle and played better than Columbo; he replaced Flozell Adams against the Vikings in the 2nd round of the playoffs with mixed results. In 2010, Free made the transition to left tackle. Arguably, right tackle was a more suitable position for the fourth year player, but Free has been commended by a variety of sources for performing well above average at left tackle.
Enter the 2011 NFL Draft. The Cowboys selected Tyron Smith 9th overall. In 2010, the 9th pick overall, CJ Spiller, signed a contract for 5 years for $25 million dollars with $20.8 million guaranteed. While the collective bargaining agreement has not been finalized, it is certain that Smith’s first contract will be roughly half that of Spiller’s. Consequently, Smith will be paid a very manageable 2.5 million dollars per year.
For a right tackle, that is a bargain. For a left tackle, that is an outright steal.
Shortly after the 2011 NFL Draft, there were presumptions that Smith would play one year at right tackle while he continued to develop his 6’5″ frame. There in lies the problem. With Smith the heir apparent at left tackle beginning with the 2012 season, how do you pay Doug Free – as a very good to excellent right tackle or as an above average to good left tackle? It is undeniable that left tackles protect the quarterback’s blind side and teams pay a premium to have their quarterback upright. Left tackles are drafted at the top of the NFL Draft (e.g. Joe Thomas & Jake Long) whereas right tackles are drafted late in the first round (or later) and are often failed left tackles.
Free on the open market will undoubtedly be sold as a young left tackle with continuing upside. If he is believed to be a top 10 left tackle by any other team, the Cowboys must match or beat this offer and over pay for Free regardless if he will eventually be transitioned back to right tackle. This may equate to an extra 2 million dollars per year if not more.
Many of the Cowboys’ offensive woes can be directly attributed to an overall unathletic offensive line. Tony Romo doesn’t have enough time to allow plays down the field to develop and the running backs rarely have running lanes between the tackles. Free alone could not improve an aging offensive line in 2010, but with Smith and possibly one of the recent draftees playing well, the look of the entire offensive line can shift for the better.
The Cowboys management has mostly ignored the offensive line in the past decade. It is time to fortify the least interesting and sexy group of players on the field. Overpaying Free is an absolute necessity.