INDIANAPOLIS -- The first salvo in what stands to be an off-season of change for the Dallas Cowboys was fired on Thursday when coach Jason Garrett officially announced that 2011 top pick Tyron Smith will move to left tackle next season.
The change was expected, given Smith's outstanding play at right tackle as a rookie last season.
He was the team's best offensive lineman and ranked as the fourth-best tackle in the league, according to Pro Football Focus.
Doug Free will move back to right tackle where he played in 2009 before manning the left side the past two seasons. His struggles were an obvious disappointment in 2011 after signing a four-year, $32 million contract, including $17 million in guaranteed money last July.
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Garrett said he has already spoken to both players about the move.
"The starting point for us next year is that Tyron will start at left tackle and Doug will start at right tackle," Garrett said at the NFL Scouting Combine on Thursday. "The versatility that Tyron has coming out is something that we were really attracted to. He was a right tackle in college. We felt like he had the physical traits to play left tackle and the same thing with Doug Free. We felt like he could play either side."
Garrett said the Cowboys looked at making the move last season but felt it would be better to ease Smith into the NFL on the right side, especially since he didn't play left tackle in college at Southern California and with the lockout-shortened off-season.
"We gave Tyron some snaps at left tackle last year," Garrett said. "We feel like he is ready to make that move now. We're just trying to come up with the best combination."
The move is a no-brainer considering the type of season both players had in 2011. Pro Football Focus rated Smith last year behind only Jason Peters, David Stewart and Bryan Bulaga. Free rated 53rd in the league among tackles, with 10 sacks allowed and 34 pressures.
The move at tackle is not the only one the Cowboys will make this off-season in hopes of improving last season's 8-8 record. Next season, the NFC East will feature the Super Bowl champion New York Giants and a talented Philadelphia Eagles team that could go into the season as the Super Bowl favorite.
Garrett is at the combine, along with owner Jerry Jones, vice president Stephen Jones and the rest of the team's coaches and scouts, analyzing potential draft prospects and making plans for free agency.
The Cowboys have needs across the board, but most specifically at guard, pass-rushing linebacker, safety and cornerback. The team is expected to release cornerback Terence Newman because of his salary, age and injury history.
With $12.6 million in cap space, Jerry Jones has said the team plans to be active in free agency. Whatever needs they don't fill there, they plan to address in the draft.
The top personnel decision now is deciding what to do with free agent linebacker Anthony Spencer. Although the 2007 first-round pick has not lived up to expectations, the Cowboys don't have a replacement in house and there are slim options in free agency. It's one reason they are considering putting the franchise tag on Spencer, guaranteeing him $8.8 million next season.
Spencer's agent, Roosevelt Barnes, met Thursday with Jerry Jones. Barnes said Spencer wants to stay in Dallas but also wants a long-term deal, which he believes he can get on the open market. They plan to meet again before the March 5 deadline.
"We just have to continue to talk about it and figure out what we want to do," Garrett said. "We're just not there yet with Spence."
The Cowboys are not there yet officially with veteran linebackers Keith Brooking and Bradie James, who are free agents. It's clear they have plans for 2011 second-round pick Bruce Carter to take a similar step forward in 2012 as Sean Lee did last season, thus taking Brooking and James out of their plans.
A torn anterior cruciate ligament his final year at North Carolina slowed Carter's progress last season, but the Cowboys expect big things now that he is another year removed from the injury.
"We're excited about the progress of Bruce Carter," Garrett said. "He did some good things at the end of the year."
Clarence E. Hill Jr.