Following a heartbreaking 8-8 season, it's sometimes difficult to appreciate a team's bright spots. Just because the Cowboys turned in a disappointing 2011 campaign doesn't mean everything went haywire, and one of the indisputable positives in Big D last season was rookie offensive tackle Tyron Smith.
Playing his college position of right tackle, Smith excelled in both run blocking and pass protection in 2011. His ability to protect quarterback Tony Romo was so good that the Cowboys are moving the athletic Smith to left tackle this season, swapping him with Doug Free.
The move has been generally accepted, but is not without its detractors. Those against the Smith-Free switch point to Free's solid 2010 campaign at left tackle and Smith's abundance of right tackle experience. Nonetheless, Free doesn't pass the eye test as a left tackle and Smith, although capable of thriving on either side of the line, has the skill set of a prototypical left tackle: athletic, quick-footed and nimble.
Despite the fact that Free did a fine job at left tackle in 2010, I think last season's struggles highlighted his weaknesses on that side. According to my numbers, Free allowed 11 sacks in 2011 – the third most in the NFL per Pro Football Focus.
Free also yielded 30 pressures, good for one on 4.7 percent of all snaps in pass protection. In comparison, he allowed pressure on just 3.1 percent of snaps in 2010. The top 15 left tackles in the NFL, in terms of total pressures, allowed pressure on 3.2 percent of snaps a year ago. In regards to that statistic, Free was pretty good in 2010, but near the bottom of the barrel last season.
On top of that, Free committed 19 penalties the past two seasons at left tackle, one of the highest totals for any player during that span. Free's stellar 2009 campaign at right tackle, however, was the reason the 'Boys signed him to a long-term deal and moved him to the left side. Returning to the position where he found initial success seems like a wise move for Free.
Meanwhile, Smith enjoyed a terrific season in pass protection. I credited him with six sacks and 16 pressures allowed. That pressure rate of 2.5 percent ranked Smith as the third-best right tackle in the NFL in 2011. If he can shore up his pass protection against the Eagles, to whom he allowed four of his six sacks last season, the sky is the limit in 2012.
The difference between Smith and Free in pass protection is the primary reason the new left tackle will be just fine this year, but the second-year lineman also outperformed Free as a run blocker last season. When running behind Smith, the Cowboys averaged a stout 5.43 yards-per-carry. Compare that to just 3.26 yards-per-carry behind Free. There are certainly limitations to those numbers and differences between the left and right sides, but such a distinct gap indicates Smith was doing something right in his rookie year.
Overall, the decision to move Smith to left tackle is just as much about Free as it is about the former USC star. Free has the potential to be an excellent player and he's very likely to bounce back in a big way in 2012, but he's probably best-suited to play the right side.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys' most dominant offensive lineman, the one who will protect your quarterback for the next decade, is going to prosper regardless of his position.