Are the Cowboys overpaying Doug Free?

News broke late last week – although we have all known it for quite a while “unofficially” – that the Cowboys were going to perform the inevitable decision of moving Tyron Smith to left tackle for what they hope will be the last move of his career.  This move will require Doug Free to move one more time back to the other side of the offensive line and guard the right flank of Tony Romo for the foreseeable future.

It was inevitable because the Cowboys took Tyron Smith with the ninth pick in the draft last season 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, I will admit that I did not realize that his deal puts him in elite company for that spot.  I also would argue the point he is now overpaid is irrelevant.  The Cowboys offensive line needs help, but judging from the eyeball test of 2011, Doug Free underperformed and was still the second best offensive lineman at the worst.

Here is what
I wrote about Free’s performance as we evaluated the offensive lineman 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 four 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 (six 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. Four sacks in two 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 two against Cole and three against
Pierre-Paul (and one more against Chris Canty) meant that six 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 four 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 three guys between Free and Smith on the line?  That was a big problem and one for another day.