Doug Free’s Tenure with the Dallas Cowboys
The relationship between the Dallas Cowboys and tackle Doug Free may come to a premature ending after the current season reaches its conclusion. The Cowboys drafted Free in the 4th round of the 2007 NFL Draft out of Northern Illinois. The Cowboys drafted him with the intent on developing and grooming him to be a fixture for the future of the offensive line. Prior to drafting Free, the only other offensive lineman drafted since 2000 that had any success while with the Cowboys was Andre Gurode, whom the Cowboys selected in the 2nd round of the 2002 NFL Draft.
In the time after Free was drafted in 2007, he was being developed and would only play sparingly in spot duty when a need arose. However, Free got his “big” opportunity in the 2009 season when starting right tackle Marc Colombo went down with a leg injury in November in a match-up with the Green Bay Packers. He played well to finish out the season as the replacement to Colombo. With this strong showing, the Cowboys felt Free had arrived and was ready to take his place in the starting line-up for the team.
The following spring, the Cowboys released highly paid and long tenured Flozell Adams (as well as Ken Hamlin on the same day), to open a spot for Free and clear money from the salary cap. With his youth and the confidence the Cowboys had in him, they pegged him to be a fixture for the next five to ten years holding down a tackle spot in what was the start of a “youth movement” along the offensive line. Free played well in the 2010 season and exceeded most expectations and was viewed as the Cowboys best offensive lineman heading into the 2011 offseason.
In the 2011 NFL Draft, the Cowboys used the 9th overall pick in Round 1 to select tackle Tyron Smith. The Cowboys felt at this time they had their “bookend” tackles for the foreseeable future, and that they would address the interior of the line before long. The Cowboys showed their faith in Free by rewarding him with a 4 year, $32 million contact with $17 of it guaranteed in July 2011. During the summer of 2011, the Cowboys continued with the turnover along the line by releasing three longtime starters. Andre Gurode (center), Leonard Davis (right guard), and Marc Colombo (right tackle) were all released between late July to early September. Undrafted free agent from 2010 Phil Costa had shown enough for the Cowboys to release Gurode, Kyle Kosier would be switched from left guard to right to replace Davis, and the newly drafted Smith would replace Colombo at right tackle.
The line played “ok” in 2011 as rookie DeMarco Murray was able to cover up a lot of the mistakes in the running game, and Tony Romo would do the same in the passing game. During this season, Free had played average on the left side, while Smith had excelled on the right side. Heading into the 2012 offseason, the prevailing school of thought was a switch of Smith to his more natural side on the left, and moving Free back to the right would solve the problems. Unfortunately, this move so far has not worked out in 2012 for the team.
Free through week 14 is leading the league in penalties, and has put Tony Romo under much pressure and duress by not being able to slow down the man he should be blocking enough of the time. He has regularly gotten beat and has the quarterback constantly in jeopardy. The Cowboys started rotating in third tackle Jermey Parnell with Free at the right tackle spot during multiple series this past weekend in Cincinnati. Parnell had proven himself worthy of a look after holding up decently when he had to play on the left side while Tyron Smith was healing from his recent ankle injury.
After the Cowboys showed their faith by rewarding Free with the generous contract extension in the summer of 2011, Free just has not played up to the contract the past two seasons. Prior to these past two seasons, Free was considered a cornerstone and building block for the offensive line. Unfortunately, only halfway through the new contract, he may end up joining the group that was exited back in 2010 and 2011. Free is more and more now not looking like the piece the team thought he was supposed to be. The 2013 NFL Draft looks to have good quality in the first two rounds where the Cowboys could address some of the offensive line problems. The team could draft a tackle they feel could start right away as they did with Smith, or let Parnell take hold of the position going into the 2013 season.
With the time and money the team has invested in Free, they could give him the option to restructure his deal and let him have the role of swing tackle in 2013. If this scenario does not appeal to Free, the Cowboys could release him outright after June 1st and have the cap hit split between 2013 and 2014’s cap. Free will turn 29 this January and while that is not “old’ in football years, it certainly is not considered young. With the steady decline of Free’s performance, this will be an interesting scenario to watch unfold this offseason.
Follow Craig Cortemeglia on Twitter at @ccortemegliaTLH