July 30, 2012; Oxnard, CA, USA; Dallas Cowboys tackle Ronald Leary (65) enters the field on opening day of training camp. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Right Guard – Ronald Leary…WHO?
Yes, that undrafted rookie from last season who Jerry Jones eagerly awaited to sign immediately after the 2012 NFL Draft. And sign him he did; one of the biggest rookie free agent deals I personally have ever seen, even handing him a $9,000 signing bonus. After a strong showing early on, the Memphis product slowed his progress in camp and did not make the active roster, instead immediately signing on with the practice squad once he cleared waivers.
In last year’s draft, most experts and draft pundits placed a 5th round grade on him, but a knee condition stemming from a torn meniscus in his left knee dropped him down to a “8th round pick.” He spent the first 14 games on the practice squad before being promoted to the active roster for the last two games of the 2012 season, seemingly protecting his rights from other teams. If he did enter the offseason on the practice squad, chances are, he would not even be a member of the Dallas Cowboys right now as another team vying for his services would have quickly snatched him up.
The physical side of his game has never been the issue. Rather, the mental side is what slowed his process in camp last season and thus ruined his shot to make the active roster. Leary has made huge strides alongside Bill Callahan in the mental side already this offseason and even last season when he was running the scout team o-line. He understands his assignments much better and is recognizing twist stunts far quicker than this time last summer. He finally understands what the defense is trying to do to him.
The man is built like a tank and is strong as a mule. The thing I like about him most is that, along with Travis Frederick, he plays with a mauling and nasty style. If there are two qualities you want in the interior of your offensive line, it’s “mauling” and “nasty.” The best adjective to describe his initial punch is “violent.” Leary also possesses quick feet for a man his size and stands on two tree trunk powerful legs.
The biggest competition for his spot will come from last year’s incumbent starter, Mackenzy Bernadeau (picked up in last year’s free agency from Carolina). It’s quite obvious Bernadeau struggled mightily last season with his performance as well as his ability to stay healthy. Like Livings, his contract also does not guarantee a starting job waiting on him.
Kevin Kowalski, Ryan Cook and David Arkin also will receive plenty of looks in camp and in the preseason but I believe by the time September 8th rolls around, Leary will have made the necessary strides mentally to garner a starting spot in only his second season.
Dec 23, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo (9) puts his hand on the back of tackle Doug Free (68) during the game against the New Orleans Saints at Cowboys Stadium. The Saints beat the Cowboys 34-31 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
And finally your 2013 starting Right Tackle is…. The new $3.5 million dollar man, Doug Free.
Has he struggled IMMENSELY the last two seasons? As he would tell you himself, yes he has and he has not been happy with his performance and neither have the Dallas fans. He has struggled mainly with his technique. The strange thing is that he had much better technique in his first two years starting (2009 on the right side filling in for the injured Marc Colombo and as starting left tackle in 2010 taking over for the departed Flozell Adams).
For whatever reason, Free’s footwork and hand placement have seemingly disappeared the last two seasons and he mainly struggles with edge rushers that like to bring power and speed at the same time (can you say Jason Pierre-Paul?). One would assume however that if he had proper technique in the past, what’s stopping him from getting it back? To that I would say, great question!
Regardless of the reason, he can now thank that lost technique for his elephant sized pay cut he received, dropping his 2013 base salary from a “high expectations” $7 million to a respectable “lower expectations” $3.5 million. And for the record, Free could not have handled the whole pay deduction situation any better than what he did continuing to be involved in team functions despite his future uncertainty with the team, and for that I applaud him. Class act.
So, the coaches just had to have him back (at the right price) but now, what do they receive from their investment? Free is certainly hoping to keep his starting spot over the up-and-coming Jeremy Parnell (Undrafted in 2009). The two players spilt time as the starter for the last month of 2012, and that strategy seemed to elevate the performance of both tackles. Free played better because he knew his starting job was on the line. Parnell played better because he wanted to overtake Free for the starting spot.
Whatever it was, it helped both players and because of that healthy competition at the end of last season, they will now battle it out for the starting right tackle spot in this year’s camp. Without such heavy expectations placed on him now, as his salary decrease indicates, I believe (and hope) Free will regain his 2009/2010 form and win the starting right tackle spot outright over the less proven Jeremy Parnell. I do believe Parnell, who was a defensive end in college, is talented and has huge upside but I think he is still at least a year away from claiming full-time starting duties as an offensive tackle in the NFL.
Losing the battle to Free, Parnell will then be relegated to “swing tackle” likely backing up both tackle spots on game days.
Well folks, that’s my early bold prediction here on May 24th, still a few weeks away from the full team mini-camp scheduled to kickoff June 11th and then departing for training camp in Oxnard on July 19th.
Just to recap, here is what my starting five looks like one more time, from left to right…
Dec 16, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys tackle Tyron Smith (77) on the line of scrimmage during the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Cowboys Stadium. The Cowboys beat the Steelers 27-24 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
LT – Tyron Smith, LG – Nate Livings, C – Travis Frederick, RG – Ronald Leary, RT – Doug Free
Whoever the starting five ends up being, that group will have to be responsible for improving our anemic running game from last season and minimizing the amount of times Romo is picking himself up off the ground.
Romo might not have the starting offensive line from the 1995 Super Bowl team (Tuinei, Newton, Allen, Williams etc.) like Troy Aikman was blessed with, but like he has done since he became starter in October of 2006, he has to work with what he has.
September 8th cannot possibly get here fast enough! Just another day at the office for Tony.