Cowboys Offensive Line: Doug Free, Superstar

Tim Heitman-US PRESSWIRE

Last season, people were calling for him to be cut. Now, Cowboys right tackle is building a case that he is one of the best tackles in the NFL.

Before the season started, I did an article about Doug Free and how he might be a candidate to become the Dallas Cowboys' MVP.

His newfound flexibility, and some characteristics that many may have overlooked, make him one of the most important players on the Cowboys roster.

I was looking at how Free might also be able to play guard, but the overall idea was that improved play from Free would be a huge step towards solidifying the offensive line and turning things around for the Cowboys as they try to escape the 8-8 doldrums.

So far this season, that may be the most prescient article I have ever written. According to the numbers compiled by the stats aficionados at Pro Football Focus, Doug Free is the highest-graded tackle in the National Football League.

Take a moment and consider that. Last year, many were calling for Free to be cut outright. Going into the preseason, a lot of Dallas fans were openly rooting for Jermey Parnell to take the right tackle job away from Free. When Jason Garrett and Jerry Jones talked about how Doug Free was responding well to the pay cut that was demanded of him and that the team was glad to still have his services, there many eyes rolling across the Cowboys landscape.

Maybe the head coach and owner were on to something.

Free has an overall grade for the season of +11.2. And even better news: He has gotten better every week, with weekly scores, in order of +2.3, +3.5, and +5.4. Just to add an even more optimistic note, his pass protection grades have been pretty much stable, with the improvement showing almost entirely in run blocking.

Prior to the start of the season, the consensus was that LT Tyron Smith was the best offensive lineman the Cowboys had. Smith is not off to a bad start, but by the same standards, he is scored as only the 35th tackle. He certainly is not having the incredible start to the season that Free is.

Part of this is a function of the matchups. Bryan Broaddus took a look at how the tackles matched up against Robert Quinn and Chris Long of the St. Louis Rams. Quinn is PFF's top 4-3 DE, and Smith had a good day against him. It was the best by far of anyone who had gone up against him this season. In the first two weeks, Quinn had graded out at +8.2 and +9.7, but Smith held him to one impact play, a forced fumble, and a +0.6 overall grade.

Against Chris Long, Free just took control. Long was a nearly ideal matchup for Free, who is much better against speed rushers than he is against a power player.

Long doesn't play with power and that played right into Free's hands. I thought that Free was able to play a complete game from a technique stand point as well. He never looked off balance or struggling with Long's rush. Other than those cutoffs against Conrath, Free was in control, poised and continues to work his way back to that form that we all had observed three years ago.

As the current mantra here goes, it is still early, but things are looking very good for Free and the tackle play in general for the Cowboys. Quinn may be as good a DE as Smith will face all year, and Free has stood up to all comers so far, including an excellent pair of 3-4 OLBs in Justin Houston and Tamba Hali of the Kansas City Chiefs. With the outside of the offensive line in good hands, and the interior looking to be noticeably improved, the one big issue on offense may finally be solved after several years of trying to find the answers.

We all knew that Free was going to play a major role in however the story played out for the offensive line this season. Most of us weren't expecting that to go very well. Nobody, well almost nobody, had a clue that he might be not only the most significant player on the line, but perhaps on the entire offense.

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