When the Dallas Cowboys opened training camp, coaches were pretty much settled on all 22 starters. Still, the decision-makers were keeping close watch on left tackle Doug Free and safety Alan Ball, the two newest members of the first team.
Free started seven games last season at right tackle, but this is different. Now he’s protecting Tony Romo’s blind side.
Ball started three games at safety last season, but also spent time at cornerback. Now he’s their last line of defense.
With training camp ending Thursday, the Cowboys are glad they scrutinized the pair. It’s made them feel even better about the promotions.
”Both of them have exceeded expectations,” team owner Jerry Jones said. ”I’d put them right there at the top of the four, five highlights of our preseason work.”
Coach Wade Phillips said they haven’t just grown into their new roles, they’ve blossomed.
”Everybody on our coaching staff, after watching them play and practice, would say, `Hey, these guys are the best two guys and they should be playing,”’ he said.
Free and Ball arrived in the 2007 draft and have inched their way up the depth chart. For instance, as rookies, Free was inactive for 15 games and Ball spent 14 weeks on the practice squad.
They handled their fill-in roles so well last season that the Cowboys opted to go with the young, up-and-comers instead of aging, expensive players, Flozell Adams and Ken Hamlin.
Free has been so solid that he’s hardly mentioned any more. The big talk regarding the line is at left guard and right tackle, where injuries have sidelined the starters.
Anonymity is every offensive lineman’s goal. His name is usually only called when he draws a penalty or gives up a sack. A job well done tends to become a highlight for the quarterback, receivers and running backs.
”I think Doug’s had a great preseason,” Romo said. ”He continues to get better and better.”
Free hasn’t started at left tackle since his senior year at Northern Illinois.
A fourth-round pick in 2007, he played in only one regular season game his first two years, then took over at right tackle when Marc Colombo broke a leg last season. Colombo returned for the playoffs, putting Free back on the bench. Then Adams got hurt in the second quarter of the playoff game against Minnesota and Free took over – for good, as it turns out.
Dallas seemingly hedged its bet by trading for Alex Barron, a former first-round pick who started every game at left tackle for St. Louis last season. But there never was any competition. Barron is here strictly for depth, such as filling in for Colombo the rest of the preseason.
”Getting the chance to run with the (starters) the whole camp, getting a lot of reps out there and working with the guys has definitely helped with confidence,” Free said.
Free’s best asset is his footwork. He’s also improved on the techniques needed to blend his athleticism and strength to lock up pass rushers and keep them out of the pocket, away from Romo.
”Every time you come out to practice, you have to have a little list of things to work on,” Free said. ”I’m not going to go into any specifics, but there are definitely things you want to work on.”
Free’s predecessor wasn’t much of a fan favorite any more because of his penchant for penalties. Still, Adams made five Pro Bowls and had started since 1998; he was the last link to the days of Troy, Michael and Emmitt.
Replacing Hamlin’s a lot easier.
Ball’s predecessor played only three seasons in Dallas, and the last two were forgettable – one interception, none his last 24 games. No wonder Dallas has been near the bottom of the league in pickoffs.
Ball hopes to change that, but he also has to be careful. Instead of just covering a receiver, like a cornerback does, he’s responsible for an entire area at safety.
”When I first got back there, there were times I saw the ball and I wanted to go right now,” Ball said. ”But I’ve gotten comfortable. I’m relaxed and patient back there. I can just see things progress and use my eyes a lot more. … You definitely have to use your eyes to see where the ball is going and see what’s happening.”
At 195 pounds, Ball’s on the light side for a safety, but secondary coach Dave Campo said it isn’t an issue. He’s shown he can hit with his work on special teams; he was named the unit’s captain three times last season, including the playoff opener.
”He’s aggressive, he wants to make plays,” Campo said. ”When he went in last year and started three ball games, you could see a big improvement from the first game to the third game.”
Now the Cowboys are counting on more improvement, from August to January and, perhaps, February.