With the recent decision of veteran guard Brian Waters to stay retired rather than take owner Jerry Jones’ offer to join the team in 2013, it seemed like the Dallas Cowboys were out of options in hopes of improving their injury-riddled offensive line.
But the Cowboys launched Plan D in practice Wednesday by moving right tackle Doug Free to right guard, moving right guard Mackenzy Bernadeau to left guard and inserting backup Jermey Parnell at right tackle.
Coach Jason Garrett downplayed the seemingly desperate decision to move Free, who struggled last year at tackle, to guard. He said the Cowboys were looking at different combinations and working on contingencies.
“With the injury situations we have had up front, we are just looking at different combinations, guys who have played really all over the offensive line,” Garrett said. “That’s been one of the things we’ve tried. When you’re low on numbers, you mix guys in at different spots.”
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The Cowboys are hoping that guard Ron Leary, who underwent arthroscopic knee surgery on Friday, is back for the season opener against the New York Giants on Sept. 8.
But there are no guarantees, and they need an alternate plan in place, which is why Free will get snaps at guard against the Cincinnati Bengals on Saturday, vice president Stephen Jones said.
If Free starts at guard, it would be the Cowboys’ fourth different set of starting guards in four preseason games.
“It’s no secret we are looking at all our options,” Jones said. “We are hoping for Leary and feel good about him. But we don’t know. We want to get the best five on the field.”
The Cowboys’ offensive line has been a mess since the start of camp when guards Nate Livings, Leary, Bernadeau and Parnell were sidelined immediately because of injuries. Livings, a starter, returned for a few days but then had arthroscopic knee surgery that has kept him sidelined. Leary returned and played well enough to earn the starting spot at left guard, but that was before he needed knee surgery.
In the meantime, the Cowboys have tried to talk both Waters, a six-time Pro Bowler with the Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots, and former New York Jets Pro Bowler Brandon Moore out of retirement to no avail.
The Cowboys also have been working rookie center Travis Frederick at guard, but they don’t like the prospect of using Phil Costa at center if Frederick plays at guard.
“Frederick is doing so well at center and he’s a rookie; we don’t want to move him,” Jones said.
So the Cowboys have turned to Free to see if he can be an option there. Of course, the move is contingent on how well Parnell plays at tackle after missing much of training camp with a hamstring injury. He will be making his preseason debut against the Bengals on Saturday.
Free refused to elaborate on his experiment at guard.
“It’s too early to tell. I don’t know anything yet,” Free said after practice Wednesday.
Garrett said Free is best suited to play tackle because of his 6-foot-8 frame, but can play guard in the Cowboys’ zone blocking scheme, which doesn’t require linemen to knock defenders off the line of scrimmage.
The Cowboys talked about experimenting with Free at guard as far back as February, but Parnell being injured in minicamp and at the start of training camp tabled those plans.
“You’re always working different combinations,” Garrett said. “When Jermey comes back, let’s give Doug a couple of chances in here. Let’s try him over there; let’s see how he does on the left side vs. the right side. You’re always doing those kind of things. At the end of it, we want to play our best five guys.”
Parnell, who split time with Free at the end of last season, was set back in his development by all the missed time in minicamp and training camp. The Cowboys have always liked his potential, but they need to see him prove that he is ready to step up to the next level.
“You want him to be able to go through all of the OTAs and practice in the minicamps and practice all through training camp,” Garrett said. “The situation is what it is, and you’ve got to make the best out of it. He’s come back and worked very hard to get himself healthy, and it will be fun to see him play. He gets after guys. That’s a real positive thing.
“Technically, he’s got to get better. He plays too high. A lot of young players play high. He’s tall. It’s something he’s got to really work on, bending. And then he hasn’t played football in a little bit, so he’s getting back to where he needs to be.”