Last season there were questions about whether Doug Free was ready to play at left tackle, after the Cowboys jettisoned long-time starter Flozell Adams. He was ready, and then some. The 27-year-old Free was among the few bright spots in an otherwise disastrous season. For the non-Cowboy fan readers, Free isn’t going to drive many NFL defensive linemen off the ball and open up gaping holes in the run game, but he is very athletic, has extremely quick feet for a guy his size (6’6, 320), and excels in pass protection.
On the other side of the line, there was Marc Colombo, who unlike Free, was awful in 2010. The Cowboys used the 9th overall pick in the draft to select Tyron Smith out of USC to replace Colombo. Smith is seen as a kid with the potential to eventually be a top flight LT in the NFL, although he played RT in college. I immediately assumed the Cowboys would slide Smith into Colombo’s spot at RT and continue to let Free play well at LT. No fuss, no muss.
But then reports started to trickle in that Smith might start 2011 at LT, and Free move back over to RT, where he played in relief of an injured Colombo at the tail end of 2009. I chalked it up to nonsense. Why move an almost sure thing like Free out of perhaps the second most important position on the football field over to the other side of the line to make room for a completely untested rookie that didn’t even play LT last season in college? At the very least, why not at least let Smith get his NFL sea legs under him at RT and see how he performs there before putting him in a larger role? After all, Smith can’t even legally drink a beer until December – He’s going to be around for a long time (or at least that’s the plan, anyway). Why rush him?
And then it hit me yesterday… Money.
(cont after the jump)…
In March, Free received the dreaded restricted free agent tender from the Cowboys. They tendered him at the highest level (Free will make roughly $3.5 million in 2011), and any team that makes an offer to Free that the Cowboys choose to decline will have to part with a first and third round draft pick. Free only has 4 years of NFL service, so while the outcome of the CBA is yet to be determined, there’s a decent enough likelihood that his RFA tender will stand.
That basically gives the Cowboys a year to get a long-term deal done with Free. I invite you all to look up the contracts of left tackles in the NFL, and compare them to right tackles. If you don’t have time for such things, I urge you to just take me at my word when I say it’s a big, big difference. Tyron Smith, as the 9th overall pick, is going to get paid handsomely no matter where he plays his rookie season. But when Jerry Jones and Doug Free’s agent sit down to talk about that next contract sometime between now and free agency in 2012, I’m sure Jones would rather pay Free “right tackle money” than “left tackle money.” That’s what this seemingly unnecessary OL shuffle could ultimately be all about.