IRVING, Texas – The future of the Cowboys' offensive front looked bright for anyone who tuned in to the tail end of the Pro Bowl on Sunday night.
As Matt Ryan drove Team Irvin for the game-winning points in the fourth quarter, he did so behind a Pro Bowl line that featured three Cowboys – Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin. Factor in the blocking prowess of Jason Witten, and the Cowboys front that dominated for so much of 2014 had plenty of say in determining the Pro Bowl.
As has been well-documented, that doesn't look likely to change soon. After signing a huge contract extension last summer, Smith is under contract through 2023, and Witten has three more seasons on his deal. Frederick has two seasons remaining on his rookie deal, Martin has two. As first-round picks, both of their contracts also include a team option for an additional year.
"Your draft, I believe it more now than ever is your lifeblood," said Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones last week at the Senior Bowl. "What we're doing out here is the most important thing we can do to build a football team. We obviously have done a good job of it in our offensive line."
The foundation is clearly in place for the foreseeable future, but Jones perfectly encapsulated a pressing need for 2015, even on such a deep unit – both right tackles, Doug Free and Jermey Parnell, are out of contract this spring.
"We'll have to make a tough decision there with Doug and Jermey," he said. "Hopefully we'll at least keep one of them."
Free has been a starter for the past five years, up until foot injuries forced him to cede the field to Parnell this season. He suffered a stress fracture in his foot Oct. 12 against Seattle and missed three games. He returned Nov. 10 against the Jaguars but sat down for good after an ankle injury Dec. 14 against Philadelphia.
He had surgery on his ankle after the Cowboys were eliminated from the playoffs.
All told, Free sat in seven games – including the Cowboys' two playoff contests. Neither the run game nor the pass protection suffered much of a drop off with Parnell starting in his place.
"He's a good player and he has a lot of physical ability," said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett of Parnell. "I think he's learning how to use that, but I think he's also demonstrated some mental and emotional toughness."
Parnell just finished a three-year, $4 million contract. Free, who took a pay cut during the 2013 offseason, just completed a two-year deal worth $7 million.
Free just turned 31 earlier in January, while Parnell turns 29 during the summer. It will be interesting to see the price that each can command this spring – particularly Free, who boasts 82 career starts to his name.
Jones wasn't under any illusions about Parnell's value in a league with a lack of quality tackles, however.
"That's another decision we have to make," he said. "I think Jermey played really well and I think a lot of teams will throw on the tape and watch him play and probably a lot of people will consider him a starter."
Neither tackle will command the same type of price tag as, say, Dez Bryant or DeMarco Murray. Jones identified the pair of All-Pro players as the most expensive contract negotiations the Cowboys have on their hands this year.
That doesn't diminish the importance of the position, however. Behind Free and Parnell, swing tackle Tony Hills is also a free agent. Fellow backup Donald Hawkins has minimal experience. Darrion Weems is both inexperienced and spent the 2014 season on injured reserve.
For all the accolades of the rest of their line, the Cowboys would do well to put priority on the right tackle spot.