It was inevitable because the Cowboys took Tyron Smith at #9 in the draft even though he was just 20 years old and you would have to go a long way back in the NFL draft to find a team targeting a right tackle-only type in the top 10 where the big dollars are paid. It is just not a great use of resources. If you liked him enough to give him a year to transition into the life of pro football and invest in his long term, you certainly owed it to the organization to examine whether this blue-chip prospect could be one of the top left tackles in the sport for years to come in Dallas.
The move was not met with universal approval from all local circles. For instance, my colleague and fellow football fanatic, TC Fleming had a well-done write-up about how Doug Free is now the single-highest paid right tackle in the league, given his hefty 4-year, $32 million dollar contract. That fact seems rather shocking and according to some, demonstrates that the Cowboys made yet another personnel department blunder when they inked him to that deal last July when the lockout ended.
And to some extent, it may speak to that, but while I will admit that I did not realize that his deal puts him in elite company for that spot, I also would argue that the point that he is now over-paid is irrelevant. The Cowboys offensive line needs help, but judging from the eyeball test of 2011, Doug Free underperformed and was still the 2nd best offensive lineman at the worst.
Here is what I wrote about Free's performance as we evaluated the OL a month ago:
LT - Doug Free - 641 pass plays - 10 sacks: Free started the season very well coming off his new contract. In the first 4 weeks of the season, Free was not involved in hardly any situations that led to sacks. Andre Carter went around his edge in New England, as did James Hall of the Rams, and Trent Cole of the Eagles. There was one blitz awareness issue in the game at Washington that led to London Fletcher's sack, but otherwise a very strong month of November. But, in December, Free was just beaten over and over again (6 of his 10 sacks in December). In fairness to Free, Jason Pierre Paul was dominating the rest of the league, too, but against the Giants and JPP, Free was eaten alive. 4 sacks in 2 games just from the left tackle spot and Trent Cole got him again in Dallas. In all, I had Free as the primary blame in 10 sacks this season, but with 2 against Cole and 3 against Pierre-Paul (and 1 more against Chris Canty) meant that 6 of his 10 sacks allowed were against the Giants and Eagles. Free sees the toughest match-up nearly ever Sunday, so, I am not here to suggest he is doing a lousy job, but it does appear that he might be more of a right tackle in the long term.
So many things in life (and football) are about context. In Free's 32 starts since the Cowboys walked away from the Flozell Adams era, Free has managed left tackle pretty well. He obviously struggles against the elite of the elite at that right defensive end, but then again, they are elite for a reason. There is no shame in losing the occasional battle to Trent Cole, Jared Allen, Jason Pierre Paul, Mario Williams, or even DeMarcus Ware. They are awesome players and can beat "anyone", therefore, if Free is conceding the periodic sack but keeping up with the average to above average performance levels among left tackles, than the Cowboys have much bigger problems to worry about at other parts of their squad before we find his replacement.
But, why did he get paid? He got paid because he had the Cowboys over a barrel. They waited to pay him and therefore had the chance of a starting left tackle hitting the free market at the age of 27 years old. That almost never happens around the league and if the Cowboys messed around and tried to get him on a low-ball offer, the ship sailed because of the work stoppage and the Cowboys waiting until the CBA was resolved to not sign any big deals they might regret. They had no fall-back depth at tackle to work with (their own fault for not hitting on any of the young tackle prospects they have tried to develop since Free) and if they were serious about bidding Marc Colombo a farewell then they had to get Free done.
So, they could argue that he was not really their left tackle of the future, but Free's representation would have a good laugh with that and then start taking calls from around the league. He was going to get left tackle money and the question was how much and where. There are simply too many teams that desire a plug-and-play tackle who is not going to get beaten like a drum by the NFL elite. The Cowboys had hours to decide and pulled the trigger and now pay Free more than the going rate for a right tackle.
But, should it matter? The Cowboys were $17 million under the cap in 2011 and were paying their right tackle, Tyron Smith 4-years, $12.5 million to play the other tackle. Combine the two, and you have $44 million for 4 years tied up in your two starting tackles who are both going to be strong points of your offensive line. That averages $5.5 million a season for each of your starting tackles and honestly, that is not a very big concern for the front office to sweat. When Tyron demands elite money because he is an elite left tackle (Which the Cowboys desperately hope) in 2015 when it is time to pay him "big boy" money, then you will not be able to afford $8m at right tackle, too. But that is 2015.
Something else to consider: Free's contract is structured to favor the Cowboys, it seems. He had $17m in guaranteed money that is primarily paid out in 2011 and 2012. However, in 2013 and 2014, $15m of the $19m he is scheduled to be paid is not guaranteed and that means that if the Cowboys feel it is not working out, they can send him packing with a minimal cap hit on the bonus money. That means they can walk away in 2013 for just $4m in dead money and can do the same in 2014 for just $2m. It is structured in a way that the Cowboys could live with and that covers them from any sort of performance drop off that is unacceptable.
And we haven't even touched on the big item here; that the Cowboys have properly developed and grown Tyron Smith. There are no promises of elite-level performance from Smith, except for his enormous tools and upside. They did not rush him to left tackle, rather they took time and worked hard with him after practice to make sure they were not throwing too much at him. I think this will pay big dividends down the road. The alternate route would have been to refuse to pay Free the money, put Smith at left tackle in his first game as a pro, and toss him to the wolves. His confidence and development may have been stunted, but they managed him properly and now feel he is ready for the next vital step in his progress.
There is no question the Cowboys have a list of transgressions that are worth complaining about when it comes to roster management and development. But, I think the idea that they did this Free/Smith situation incorrectly is stretching the confines of an accurate depiction of their situation. I have no problem whatsoever with how they did it. Now, the 3 guys between Free and Smith on the line? That was a big problem and one for another day.