IRVING, Texas – The question of whether Doug Free will be a Cowboy has mercifully been answered – what about the question of what to do with him?
Free agreed to a new, smaller contract last week after an offseason of speculation brought on by a forgettable 2012 season. The former $8 million offensive tackle severely underplayed his four-year contract from 2010 after a move to the right side of the line, and the result was an uncertain few months of contract re-negotiation.
Throughout that time period – a rare case of an offensive lineman being a team's most-discussed asset – offensive line coach Bill Callahan said Free never strayed away from his dedication to the job. The 29-year-old spent the spring reporting to Valley Ranch and putting in time for training despite the uncertainty about his future.
"I'm really proud of the way Doug has handled everything that has transpired in the offseason," Callahan said. "He's been very positive, he's been forthcoming, he's been hard working and he's not let the business side affect the playing side, which I think has been tremendous, so in that regard I just have the utmost respect."
That much has been made evident by Free's presence at events like the Reliant Home Run Derby and last week's Cowboys annual golf social. Even in the midst of speculation about his future, Free made enthusiastic team appearances alongside team favorites like Dez Bryant, DeMarco Murray and Sean Lee.
"I'm proud of what he's accomplished, to maintain his focus and still go out and practice and work and keep his focus as a pro just speaks volumes for me," Callahan said.
It will be interesting to see how that professionalism translates to the playing field. Free is the logical starter at right tackle for 2013 at this point, although it's important to remember that he was basically platooning with backup Jermey Parnell by the tail end of last season. Cowboys coach Jason Garrett touched on that when discussing his excitement at bringing Free back.
"We were rotating those guys in almost series by series," Garrett. "Doug ended up playing a lot more snaps each game than Jermey did, but I really think that was a positive situation for both guys and for our football team. Jermey responded well to it, and Doug responded well to it." [embedded_ad]
That seems to be applicable all over the offensive line, as the Cowboys boast plenty of depth but not many established starters. Returning a veteran like Free to the competition is something Callahan said should benefit the line in the long run.
"We like the fact that everyone has been here in this system for at least two years now," he said. "(Continuity) is important but we also want to make sure we have the right guys playing. We like how the progress has gone so far and I've been encouraged by what I've seen."
Free should probably be considered the favorite to retain his old role at the outset of training camp. But it's clear from the coaches that his presence is a valuable one regardless – especially at his new discounted value.
"He's a veteran player," Garrett said. "He's been a good player for us on the left side and the right side, and he's got some position flex. He's smart. He's a leader."