All year long, much of the discussion about the plight of the Cowboys' O-line has focused on the right tackle position, where Doug Free never got back to the form that garnered him a multi-year, multi-million dollar contract. The Cowboys have not yet (publicly) decided what to do with Free, but there is a chance he could become a cap casualty this offseason.
Undrafted free agent Jermey Parnell started spelling Free for a couple of snaps each game toward the end of the season, and there's a chance he might be an option to take over at right tackle in 2013 for Free. I love an underdog story as much as the next guy, but at this point, the chances of Parnell becoming the starter next year still seem pretty slim.
So with Free possibly out and Parnell a longshot, what will the Cowboys do at right tackle? Traditionally, the Cowboys have not shied away from improving their O-line via free agency, so that may very well be an option again this year, particularly as the Cowboys would likely want a player who'd be an immediate upgrade at the position, and not just in couple of years. So let's take a look at some of the right tackles available in free agency.
Free agent right tackles
Below is an overview of the available free agents who played significant snaps at right tackle in 2012. The Cowboys likely have a lot more players on their radar, but these are the players we have a fair amount of data on. Doug Free is included in the tables for reference purposes. Some quick definitions for the table:
Pass Blocking Productivity (PBP) is a fairly straightforward metric that combines sacks, hits and pressures allowed into one simple number. It totals the three values (hits and pressures are valued at 0.75 the value of a sack), the sum is divided by the total number pass blocking snaps and then multiplied by 100 to get a solid number.
Splash Plays: Number of sacks allowed and penalties against
NFL rank: Rank among 80 tackles by overall grade
||Player||Team||Snaps||Overall Grade||Pass Block Snaps||Sacks||Hits||Pressures||PBE||Penalties||Splash Plays|
|4||Andre Smith Jr.||CIN||1,073||+26.9||600||7||2||24||4.4||4||11|
Most of the stats available for linemen are about the mistakes they make. And Doug Free has made a lot of them. The 42 QB hurries allowed are the most by a right tackle in the league last year. In fairness, Free also had one of the highest pass blocking snap counts in the league, so relative to his snap count, his pass blocking efficiency actually ranks him close to average in the league. What kills his numbers though is the number of splash plays given up: the combination of sacks allowed and penalties incurred leads the league by a fair margin.
But sacks, QB hits and penalties only tell a small part of the picture. And in looking at the table above, they really don't tell the whole story of a tackle's performance. The offensive line is key to moving the ball, either on the ground or through the air. Yet there are no stats to measure an individual lineman's contribution in moving the ball. The best we can muster in individual performance assessment are the PFF grades. They are not stats, but they're the best we have right now. And as the table above shows, there are significant differences between the available tackles. So let's break down those numbers in a little more detail:
||Player||Team||Snaps||Overall Grade||Pass Blocking
||Screen Blocking||Run Blocking||Penalties||Age|
|4||Andre Smith Jr.||CIN||1,073||+26.9||+11.7||+1.5||+10.6||+3.1||25|
The table shows that each right tackle has a different skill profile. Some are great pass blockers, some excel at run blocking, some do both equally well.
The numbers also show that Free's overall grade is heavily influenced by his league-leading 15 penalties. But excluding the penalties from Free's total grade would only move him up from 66th to 54th among all tackles in the league. If they Cowboys keep Free, they'll have to fix more than just his penalty issues.
What the table also shows is that this year's free agency class looks fairly young. Most of the right tackles listed here are in or just entering prime age for offensive linemen. The Cowboys have recently shown a propensity for filling holes along the O-line with free agents, and most of the free agents available appear to fit the Cowboys' age profile for offensive line acquisitions:
Marc Colombo ('05): 27
Kyle Kosier ('06): 28
Leonard Davis ('07): 29
Montrae Holland ('08): 28
Nate Livings ('12): 29
Mackenzy Bernadeau ('12): 25
The Cowboys will have to answer some tough questions over the next few weeks. Do they trust Doug Free to find his way back to the form of two years ago? Do they think they'll be able to get the knee and ankle issues under control that have been bothering Free all season and made him look flatfooted at times? What is Jermey Parnell's ceiling, and could he be ready for a starting role in 2013? Once they've answered those questions, they'll need to act accordingly.
2013 looks like a good year to get a right tackle in free agency with plenty of young, proven guys available. But can the Cowboys afford the type of money that may be necessary to sign one of these free agents? Or will they have to find a right tackle via the draft?
Who do you think will play right tackle for the Cowboys in 2013?