In the first four parts of my Training Camp Battles Series , I analyzed the future of the nickel linebacker , defensive end, free safety , and cornerback positions. I gave slight edges to Sean Lee, Marcus Spears, Alan Ball, and Bryan McCann in winning each job.
Today, I will address the left tackle position. K.C. Joyner of ESPN recently wrote an interesting piece on how the diminishing salaries of left tackles show that NFL teams are now placing less emphasis on the quarterback’s blind side . I tend to agree, and perhaps the Cowboys’ release of Flozell Adams in favor of the unproven Doug Free shows they do as well.
In addition to Free, remember the Cowboys also traded first round bust Bobby Carpenter to St. Louis for Alex Barron. Barron has loads of skill but, like Carpenter, has yet to consistently utilize it on the field.
Free is the opposite of what the Cowboys generally seek in an offensive lineman–a fact that could lend insight as to the organization’s offensive mindset and philosophy moving forward. He is somewhat “undersized” (as far as Dallas’ linemen go), but extremely athletic. Free did well (but not outstanding) in pass protection last season (I gave him a “B-” ) and his quick feet should aid him in his transition to the left side.
On the other hand, Free isn’t particularly dominant in the run game (here are Free’s 2009 run blocking grades ). He is the “anti-Flozell Adams,” meaning the ‘Boys may be transitioning to a more athletic offensive line to combat the pass protection problems which arose in Minnesota during the playoffs.
I gave Free a “B-” overall grade, ranking him at No. 19 on my list of 2009 Cowboys grades .
Barron’s skill set is similar to that of Doug Free. He probably has more natural ability than Free (having been a first round pick), but potential means nothing without production.
The biggest knock on Barron has been his penchant for penalties (particularly false starts), but I completed an interesting study detailing why false starts, although annoying, are not as costly as they seem .
In my comparison of Barron and Flozell Adams , I gave Barron a “C+” overall grade for his 2009 play. He has appeared eager to get to work thus far in offseason activities, and if he can finally maximize his potential, he could be a real asset to Dallas.
Pros/Cons of Starting. . .
Free has experience with the offense. Although he has yet to play on the left side of the line, his skill set makes him (on paper) a good fit to protect Romo’s blindside. Free isn’t going to dominate in the run game, but he is probably (at this point) a safer pick than Barron.
Barron’s upside is incredible (even more so than that of Free). Like Free, he probably won’t be as efficient in the run game as ex-Cowboy Flozell Adams. Barron must limit his penalties, but his natural ability is outstanding. Perhaps a change of scenery is just what the former Florida State Seminole needed.
Overall, I like the Cowboys’ situation at left tackle. It is the primary reason I wrote an article on why the Cowboys were smart to not trade for Jammal Brown.
As of now, Free’s experience in Dallas gives him the advantage to win the job. The Cowboys obviously have a lot of confidence in him as they released Adams and did not address the tackle position until late in the draft.
I listed Doug Free as a player who will break out in 2010, but Barron is an X-factor. His presence is a great thing for Free, as both players know that poor play will result in no play.
Normally, the loser of this battle might become the “swing tackle” (the backup at both offensive tackle positions), but I don’t see the Cowboys using Barron on the right side. Instead, Free may be a rare “starting swing tackle'—the starting left tackle who would move to right tackle in the event of an injury to Marc Colombo. In that scenario, Barron would step in as the starting left tackle.
As of now, expect Free to win the starting gig in camp (although Barron’s talent makes this a battle to monitor closely). You can almost label Barron as starter 1B, however, as an injury to either offensive tackle position could force him into the starting lineup (even if he isn’t a swing tackle).