Pay cut should serve as motivation for Cowboys’ Free

No one questioned the Dallas Cowboys for giving offensive tackle Doug Free a lucrative, long-term contract in 2011. The former fourth-round pick had been the club’s most consistent lineman and other teams were poised to sign him in free agency.

It was hard to imagine him completely regressing as a player and ultimately platooning at right tackle with the inexperienced Jermey Parnell. The Cowboys didn’t want to completely give up on Free following his dismal 2012 season, but they also didn’t want to continue paying him roughly $7 million per season. On Thursday, the Cowboys ended this awkward standoff by agreeing to a contract that will pay him $7 million total over the next two seasons, according to sources.

Only next year’s $3.5 million will be guaranteed. The new deal should free up close to $3.5 million in salary-cap room, which could go toward players such as Sean Lee who will soon become an unrestricted free agent. Free seemed to respond reasonably well when he was forced into a platoon role last season and there is hope among the coaching staff that his demotion and subsequent pay cut will serve as motivation moving forward.

The Cowboys looked at both Eric Winston and Tyson Clabo as potential replacements for Free at right tackle, but elected to go with the status quo. I’m now hearing folks at Valley Ranch say they believe that Free’s a better player than Clabo, which seems a little optimistic. Clabo recently signed with the Dolphins. I asked a longtime scout familiar with both players to provide his assessment:

“Free’s a better athlete, runs better and gets to space better,” said the scout. “Similar results in the run game at the line of scrimmage, but Free gets to the second level fairly well. Clabo’s a little more steadily consistent overall. They are equal in their anchor assessments. Free can slide his feet well, but Clabo’s more technically sound in pass protection.”

Neither player is an ascending talent, but they are both serviceable. Free got a big contract because he flourished at left tackle. But with Tyron Smith now playing on that side and Free struggling at right tackle, his previous contract was completely out of line.

I do think this is a situation where Free won’t have any bad blood toward the Cowboys. He certainly earned the pay decrease in every conceivable manner. Maybe the fact that he’s no longer the highest-paid right tackle in the league will remove some of the pressure.