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How Important is Doug Free to the Cowboys’ Offensive Line?

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Jonathan Bales

The Cowboys’ gutsiest (and most scrutinized) roster move this offseason came when they released veteran left tackle Flozell Adams in favor of the younger, more athletic Doug Free. 

Even though I gave Adams a “C-” grade for his 2009 play, I didn’t originally support the move.  For one, false starts aren’t as costly as they appear.  Adams’ frequent pre-snap movement was more annoying than detrimental.

Secondly, Free has very little experience at left tackle.  Even though his skill set projects well to the left side, the move was (and still is) quite a risky one.

On the other hand, I’ve always thought NFL teams value left tackles way, way too much.  Others agree

You can tell this to be the case because, as “The Blind Side” (not to be confused with Amber Leigh and “The Blonde Side“) made famous, left tackles are the second-richest players in the NFL (behind quarterbacks).

However, as ESPN’s KC Joyner recently pointed out, the leaguewide “build-your-team-around-a-left-tackle” philosophy is disappearing.  Teams such as the Saints are winning without a dominant left tackle and, perhaps even more telling, quality left tackles are dropping in the draft.  Even with all of his flaws, do you think Maryland’s Bruce Campbell would have dropped to the fourth round, say, five years ago?  How about West Virginia’s Selvish Capers to the seventh?  Probably not.

The Cowboys are the latest team to place an unknown commodity on the blind side.  But just how important is Doug Free to overall success of the Cowboys’ offensive line?

If we used NFL linemen salaries as a gauge of the importance of particular positions (even with the decrease in overpaid left tackles), we might be led t0 believe the “worth” of each lineman (in relation to the other linemen) to be something like this:

Left Tackle: 30 percent
Left Guard: 17 percent
Center: 13 percent
Right Guard: 17 percent
Right Tackle: 25 percent

But is this a true representation of each position’s worth?  I would argue not, particularly for the Cowboys.

First, centers are sorely under-appreciated.  They make the line calls, putting their teammates in the proper position to succeed.  They have to be cerebral enough to handle this task, and strong enough to take on 330-pound defensive tackles. 

With the increase in the percentage of Shotgun snaps around the league (especially for Dallas), the center’s job has become even more imperative than in past years.  Before Andre Gurode became comfortable with Shotgun snaps, we all saw how stressful a shaky snapper can be (anyone want to play Andre Gurode Shotgun Snapper?).

Offensive guards are also more imperative to a team’s success than most people realize.  For the Cowboys, this is particularly true due to the abundance of run plays in the “1” and “2” holes (behind the guards).  With big Leonard Davis at right guard, why not?

Guards are also more vital in pass protection than you’d think.  Yes, a left tackle’s job is more difficult, but they can actually get beat and the quarterback can still step up in the pocket.  When a guard or center gets pushed back into the middle of the pocket, directly in the quarterback’s line of vision, the results, I’d argue, are more disastrous than when tackles get beat (perhaps I will attempt a study on that in the near future).

Finally, right tackles are extremely important as well.  As is the case for many teams, the Cowboys’ coaches love to run behind their right tackle.  Marc Colombo is a bruising player, and the 6.25 yards-per-carry and 17.3 percent “big play” rate when running behind him in 2009 were both the highest of any Cowboys’ lineman, by far.  I’d argue the increased emphasis on run blocking which is placed upon a right tackle’s shoulders nearly makes up for the fact that he doesn’t protect the quarterback’s “blind side” (which isn’t even the case for teams with left-handed passers).

Left tackles are still crucial to the success of any offensive line, but not to the degree which is represented by the distribution of salaries.  Instead, I’d argue the “value” of each position is more even:

Left Tackle: 23 percent
Left Guard: 18 percent
Center:  20 percent
Right Guard: 18 percent
Right Tackle: 21 percent

So should Cowboys fans be worried about Doug Free as their new left tackle?  If preseason play is any indication of future 2010 success, Free is about the last lineman about whom the fans and coaches should have concerns, even taking into account the value breakdown we see above.

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