Doug Free and Alan Ball are expected to be two new faces in the Dallas starting lineup this season. While Ball will be playing a position at free safety that the Cowboys seem to rotate every few years or so, Free will be taking over the left tackle position that hasn't seen change in more than a decade.
It will definitely be different seeing a #20 starting at free safety instead of a #26. It will take even more getting used to seeing #68 starting at left tackle, instead of #76.
Flozell Adams. He played with The Triplets. He played alongside Newton, Williams, Allen, and Stepnoski. Flo was banging hats in practice with Chad Hennings and Leon Lett! 12 seasons is a long time with one team, especially starting all but 14 games in that span.
During the span that "The Hotel" held down the starting LT position, the Cowboys have had five different players end seasons starting at FS (George Teague, Roy Williams, Keith Davis, Patrick Watkins, and Ken Hamlin). Now, that kind of turnover may not seem too heavy seeing that Williams, Davis, and Watkins also chipped in years at strong safety, but it does suggest that the team has had some trouble settling down at the FS spot. Guys like Teague and Hamlin have been pretty good players; although, not enough to keep the job for more than three years.
If recent history suggests anything, it would seem that the team would prefer Free to hold onto his starting position longer than Ball. That, of course, depends greatly on this season.
Doug Free - 6'6", 313
Selected in the 4th Round of the 2007 Draft
Strengths - Free is said to be a smart player with good feet--two characteristics a team wants in a LT. He is quick for his size, evident by his having played tight end in both high school and college. He started every game in college.
Started all 49 games at Northern Illinois and was a semifinalist for the Draddy Award - which recognizes academic success, football performance, and exemplary community service.
His development in the pros proved to be valuable to the Cowboys last season when Marc Colombo broke his leg in Green Bay. Free took over the RT spot and handled himself rather well. How can any of us forget "The Downfield Block" in the playoffs against Philly?
Weaknesses - But can Free be consistent, be dominant while run-blocking? He is not considered to be the powerful blocker that Flozell was, but he has bulked up some since coming to Valley Ranch. DeMarcus Ware has even used the term "mauler" when referring to Free.
And here are some recent comments by Jay Ratliff on Free:
The biggest question is Doug Free: can he replace Flozell Adams? And I would definitely say yes. He’s one of the toughest young guys we have and is very smart. He played behind [Marc] Colombo last year and produced and he was playing out of position. This time, he’s at home and he’s taken many reps there and we’re looking for some big things from him.
The playoff loss to the Vikings certainly showed that Free can be had by one of the league's elite defensive players in Jared Allen. Certainly strength and lack of experience played into that performance, which is more than we can say for the rest of the O-line in that game.
What should we expect?
If the Cowboys have to favor TEs on Free's side throughout the 2010 season, then he won't come anywhere close to steadying the LT position for the team as Adams did. His game probably resembles Mark Tuinei's more than Flo's, but there's also the chance he can start as long as Kurt Vollers did.
Either way, having Alex Barron in camp should give Free some healthy competition. Plus, going against Ware every day will further develop his pass-protection skills.
Alan Ball - 6'1, 188
Selected in the 7th Round of the 2007 Draft
Strengths - Like Free, Ball also played college ball in the state of Illinois, though at the University of Illinois.
Finished his collegiate career at Illinois with 199 tackles, eight tackles for a loss, two interceptions, 23 passes defensed and one forced fumble.
With all the pressure that Wade Phillips likes to bring on defense, he needs a centerfielder back at FS. Combined with the NFL being a pass-oriented league, Ball's conversion from cornerback provides the Cowboys an extra cover guy in the secondary.
Obviously, having good coverage skills is essential for guys who play corner and have also played in the slot-CB position, which Ball has. Starting just three games for Dallas last year, Ball didn't notch an interception but did break up a few passes.
Also like Free, the coaches have been patient with Ball's development. Coach Phillips sees him as a very versatile player, who will also likely serve as the team's fourth CB.
Weaknesses - Ball's slight build may worry a lot of you when it comes to run support. We've read this offseason that he's been working on his tackling angles during mini-camps. But he does seem to be a good open field tackler, as he's shown as a special teams gunner.
Gearing up to start at FS, Ball says he's added some bulk.
Ball, who is listed at 6-1, 188 pounds on the Cowboys' official roster, said he might play this year closer to 200 pounds. But anything more than that is a little too much for Ball.
"Don't get me wrong, I've been in the weight room all summer long. I'm trying to get as strong as I can," Ball said. "(Strength and conditioning coach) Joe Juraszek has done a good job with me. I think I'm more explosive and I've gained a lot of strength. I want a little more weight because it's a physical game. But at the same time, I have to find that right balance where I don't lose my speed and quickness. And I think Joe and I have done a good job of that this offseason."
What should we expect?
Ball may not be quarterbacking the secondary like Ken Hamlin was, but that's not to say that he can't. His starting presence should solidify the Dallas defensive backfield as one that can cover. Creating more turnovers is the focus this year, so Ball will look to bettering Hamlin's '09 interception numbers.
Ball can hit WRs, but how he will hold up over the course of the season against RBs could be the key to his keeping the starting gig.
And like Free, Ball lacks starting experience. But how else is a guy supposed to get such experience? He'll have his chance now, and the playing experience he does have should give him the edge over second-year guy Mike Hamlin--at least for this season.
Decision time! State your case for either player. Even if Free doesn't hold down the fort as long as Flo did, he still may start longer for the Cowboys than Ball. The coaches do seem to like what they have in Hamlin, plus Ball is playing on a one-year contract.
On the other hand, imagine how short Free's leash will be if Brian Orakpo continually gets to Tony Romo in Week 1. There is a lot of veteran experience on the offensive line to help him out, but he will eventually be left on an island at times.