Doug Free: The Future at Left Tackle?

Unfortunately, the Cowboys can’t be deep at every position. In regards to offensive tackle, the team looks rather thin behind starters Flozell Adams and Marc Colombo. Investing a draft pick in Robert Brewster could provide Colombo a backup for years to come; although, Brewster is raw and not likely to be the active swing tackle on gameday this season. Last year, Pat McQuistan backed up both tackles but saw little action. It’s hard to believe that he will maintain that role with third-year man Doug Free looking to live up to his own potential.

Many of us know so little about Free because he's had limited playing time, having spent much of his short career inactive. The Cowboys picked Free in the fourth round of the 2007 Draft. His rookie year began with a start in the first preseason game, but ended quickly with a knee sprain in that very game. The injury delayed his development, as he would spend the rest of the preseason rehabbing and the first 15 games of the regular season as an inactive player. At least he saw some regular season action when the Cowboys rested their starters in the season finale against the Redskins. As it turned out, that fourth quarter work at right tackle provided him more playing time than he saw all of last season.

Even though Free has shown potential in training camp and practice, the coaches must have felt more comfortable keeping McQuistan active last season. "McQ", who is a bit more experienced and can also fill in at guard, also allowed the team some options on the interior line while Kyle Kosier and Montrae Holland missed time. But he is not the only option for this season. Dallas needs an upgrade at the tackle position, especially behind the 34-year-old Adams. Where it can be argued that McQuistan has hit his ceiling and is not exactly a prototypical NFL left tackle, Free’s potential and much talked about "quick feet" should ready him to close the gap between starters and project players.

The question remains: Is Doug Free being groomed to eventually take over the starting left tackle job, or will he just be a career backup?

We all witnessed Flozell Adams tough it out through injuries last season. In the past, he’s handled edge rushers, and more often than not, rendered them ineffective. But haunting images from a game such as last season’s in Arizona, where Tony Romo was rushed early and often--mostly from his blindside, make me wonder if the team is more prepared for a substitution at left tackle going into 2009. And having turned 34 in May, how many starting years does "The Hotel" have left in the tank? One more? Two? He’s signed through 2013. We can agree that NFL contracts are rarely set in stone, but for Adams to even sniff at playing his out, he has to show he’s a young Jackie Slater; he has to show that last year was just a bad year, not a body of evidence that his skills are diminishing. If Adams suffers from injuries or aging talent, it may force the coaching staff into making a choice, which is why Free needs to be ready.

How Free performs during this upcoming camp should give us all some feeling of direction about where the Cowboys’ future at left tackle is headed. The 6’6", 311-pound tackle out of N. Illinois is said to have good feet for a lineman, something NFL teams covet in left tackles. He’d have to be athletic to be able to do stuff like this in high school (from his DC.com bio):

As a defensive tackle in 2002, led the team to a 7-3 record and a playoff berth, recording 64 tackles, eight sacks, seven blocked kicks, six forced fumbles, five pass deflections, and two fumble recoveries.

Also had six receptions for 141 yards and a touchdown as a tight end.

Too bad the Cowboys are set at tight end. How about backup nose tackle? I kid.

Here’s what draft guru Mel Kiper said about Free:

I’ve always been very high on Doug Free. He is a tremendous physical specimen, is very light on his feet for his size, and an explosive run blocker. He has a chance to be a first or second rounder in the 2007 draft.

An explosive run blocker? You’ve got to like that!

I also like this 2008 Michael Lombardi quote on Free that Raf used in his New Year’s Day article, "Cowboys Autopsies: Offensive Line".

"If I were in Baltimore I might call Dallas and see if I could acquire one of its young offensive tackles. I would prefer 2007 fourth-round pick Doug Free, but doubt the Cowboys would trade him. Dallas is one of the few teams that has five very good offensive tackles."

Looking at the names on the Cowboys’ current roster, the tackle position now seems to lack someone with both experience and potential behind the starters. Sure, Leonard Davis can swing outside if really needed, but he excels at guard. Why mess with a good thing; and in the process, why create an even "Bigg"er-sized hole on the interior? Brewster is a rookie and more of a right tackle, and McQuistan is no lock to make the team.

Just imagine how solid the depth chart would look if Free were to step it up later this month in camp, and then show it in the preseason games. If he takes his development to the next level, the Cowboys would have a real 'swing' tackle, instead of the guard/tackle they had in McQuistan. Colombo would have a capable backup, and Adams would have a successor to groom. The Cowboys could have their left tackle of the future, and we will all be able to breathe a little easier about this upcoming season.

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