The weekend before the Super Bowl features a couple of showcase (as in more or less pretend) games. The Senior Bowl brings together many of the top college prospects in practices and play that offers much more evidence of what they can bring to the league than the Underwear Olympics, also knows as the NFL Combine. Meanwhile, the Pro Bowl is a recognition of some of the top players from 2014 where the Dallas Cowboys coaching staff will also get a chance to talk to some potential free agents to consider.
The Cowboys have a league leading seven players in the Pro Bowl, and would have had eight had Dez Bryant's groin not lost interest. Three of them are the stud former first round offensive line picks Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin. They provide a foundation for offensive success well into the future and give the Cowboys more leeway in deciding what to do about unrestricted free agent DeMarco Murray.
With Smith signed to a Cowboy-for-life deal and Fredbeard and Martin on rookie deals, the team has no concerns about those three positions. But among the many of their own free agents that the Cowboys have to consider what to do about are the two players who handled the right tackle position for the team in 2014, Doug Free and Jermey Parnell. Free came into the season as the starter, but injuries forced the team to rely on Parnell a lot, especially at the end of the season.
Free started 11 games for the Cowboys in 2014. Parnell started seven, including the two playoff games while Free was out with a left ankle and foot injury.
This is looking more and more like a true either/or scenario for Dallas. According to Spotrac, Free was paid $3.5 million in 2014, which is probably a good starting point for what one of the two would be worth to the team next season. Parnell was considerably cheaper at $1.5 million, but the consideration here is what the starter would be paid. It is unlikely that the team would try to keep both, since Parnell would reasonable expect much more and the team cannot pay a backup or swing tackle the same as they do the starter. There is no cap hell in Dallas, but cap matters.
Pretending for a moment that we are the brain trust that earned Jerry Jones his NFL Executive of the Year award, it seems likely that the team would seek to find the next swing tackle in the draft, or turn to their own resources. Darrion Weems is recovering from injury and the team found Tony Hills good enough to bring to the 53 man roster. One of them might be the answer. If not, then don't discount the team using a high draft pick yet again for an offensive lineman. It is a strategy that has worked out pretty well of late.
This leaves the decision of who to go with for the starter, assuming that the team is not going to find a new starter with the 27th pick. Who is the better option between Free and Parnell?
Free is assumed to be the better player. He was a leader on the field and in the locker room. But he is also the oldest of the linemen, and obviously had injury problems. Parnell is three years younger. According to Pro Football Focus, the two graded out almost identically at +8.5 for Free and +8.7 for Parnell. Of course, PFF's secretive grading process is not the be all and end all of player evaluation. But if they are anywhere near close, then the team is going to be looking at the age, injury, and intangibles factor.
It is possible that the team sees them as close enough that it will become a matter of who will take the most team friendly deal. In a kind of reverse bidding process, the Cowboys may offer one a contract to the team's liking, with a fixed time period to accept or decline. If it is turned down, then the other would be offered. It may take some back and forth, but with the two to play off one another, it should not take too long to reach a deal. That may sound callous, but it is the way things go in the league.
The loser, with the resume created in 2014, will not likely be on the market for long. Good or even just serviceable offensive tackles are a valuable commodity in the league. In this situation, the Cowboys may not have a really bad choice. But one of these two players will likely be wearing a new uniform this fall.
Who do you think should return?