SAN ANTONIO -- Having recently signed a four-year, $32 million contract that will pay him a $10.3 million signing bonus, Dallas Cowboys left tackle Doug Free has the world at his feet.He could afford a big house or an expensive sports car or to sail around the world. But that isn't Free."Maybe a new T-shirt?" Free said when asked what his first big purchase might be. "You aren't going to make it forever, so you have to hold on to as much as you can."The Cowboys put their money where their quarterback's blindside is by re-signing Free last week.They were more than $18 million over the $120 million salary cap when free agency started. But the question never was whether they could afford Free. It was: Could they afford NOT to re-sign Free?"Whatever it takes," one Cowboys veteran said of Free before free agency began.Quarterback Tony Romo shared those feelings after missing 10 games with a fractured left clavicle, which came on a missed block."I think it was very important," Romo said of re-signing Free. "I think Doug had a good season last year. It was great for us to keep a guy who is committed to working every day. Doug does things the right way, and he was rewarded for playing well."The Cowboys have turned over their offensive line the past two off-seasons. They parted ways with longtime left tackle Flozell Adams a year ago and sent right tackle Marc Colombo and right guard Leonard Davis on their way this year. Colombo and Davis turn 33 this fall; Adams is 36.Dallas definitely got younger with Free (27), first-round pick Tyron Smith (20) and Montrae Holland (31) in their starting lineup. But are they better?"We needed to do that," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. "That was how we drafted to do that. I do think with all due respect, and I have all the world of respect for those guys -- Colombo and Davis and Flo -- but we have improved. This was the time to do it."I think a lot of [offensive line coach] Hudson Houck. I think that Hudson certainly wants the very best to work with in his talent, but he wants the most experienced to work with. But if I had to have somebody to coach somebody who didn't have experience, I'd want it to be Hudson. We need to take advantage of what I believe are guys talented enough to come in and play [young]."The Cowboys' offensive line cost them one game last season when backup Alex Barron, subbing for Colombo, was called for holding on the final play against Washington to negate a potential game-winning touchdown. Barron was not re-signed this year.Free, the biggest question mark on the line heading into last season, ended up being the team's most consistent lineman. He allowed only five sacks in his first season as a full-time starter, despite blocking some of the NFL's top defensive linemen."I think he played the way we thought he was going to play, and he keeps growing," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "One of the things we talk a lot to our players a lot about is you have to go to the next play.... Whenever things went bad, he just kind of got back in his stance and got going again. So we feel good about that, and he'll continue to grow because of the approach that he takes."Free is expected to do more this season, taking on the role of leader. He isn't the veteran, with Kyle Kosier (32) and Andre Gurode (32) returning, but Colombo's departure has left a leadership void that Houck is expecting Free to fill."I've seen it already," Houck said. "It's amazing the confidence that he's grown into even the last year. He's picked it up some. When you're a starter and you are successful, it just comes naturally."Free still will be Free, though, even after getting paid."I know my position on the football team -- to play left tackle," Free said. "I really didn't care about if I was going to be a high-profile guy or not. I just do my job."Charean Williams817-390-7760
The Doug Free file
Ht.: 6-6 Wt.: 320 College: Northern Illinois
Drafted: 2007, 4th round (122nd overall) by Cowboys
2009: He made his first career start in Week 11 filling in for an injured Marc Colombo at right tackle. Free started the last seven regular-season games, and the Cowboys went 5-2 during that stretch.
2010: Free started all 16 games at left tackle and allowed just five sacks on the season.
2011: The Cowboys resigned Free to a four-year, $32 million contract with a $10.3 million signing bonus.