Doug Free moved from right tackle to left tackle in 2010 to replace Flozell Adams. He moved back to right tackle after Tyron Smith’s rookie season when the Cowboys wanted to get Smith on the left side. Free split snaps with Jermey Parnell at right tackle late last season and then took a pay cut this off-season to stay in Dallas. Now, he’s practicing at right guard, a position he has never played, with the possibility of starting the season there.
“He’s a pro, and whatever we’ve asked him to do, he just goes and does,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “Play the left side, play the right side, play inside, and he goes to work and he tries to do his best. He’s always done that. I think he’s made the environment better as well. He’s got such a good attitude about anything we ask him to do and just goes to work. I think that’s infectious and contagious throughout your team.”
Injuries have left the Cowboys trying to figure out their two best guards.
The Cowboys placed Nate Livings on injured reserve with a knee injury. Ron Leary returned to individual drills Monday after undergoing surgery on his right knee Aug. 18. Mackenzy Bernadeau has missed a lot of practice time with injuries since he was signed last off-season, including being out last week with an ankle injury.
In an attempt to get their five best offensive linemen on the field together, the Cowboys asked Free to try his hand at guard two weeks ago. He started at right guard against the Bengals on Aug. 24, and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones called Free’s performance “amazing.”
“I was slightly surprised, but I’m willing to do whatever it takes to make this team better,” Free said of the move to guard. “I think I’ve proved that before, and I’ll prove it again.”
Free took snaps at both right guard and right tackle Monday, but he considers himself a guard at the moment.
The Cowboys could start Smith at left tackle, Leary at left guard, rookie Travis Frederick at center, Free at right guard and Jermey Parnell at right tackle. Those five did not play a game together this preseason.
Smith, with his 15 career starts at left tackle, would have the most experience of any offensive lineman at his position if that is the Cowboys’ starting five. Leary and Frederick have never played in a regular-season game. Parnell’s only career start came at left tackle in place of Smith last season.
Free has made 55 career starts, all at tackle.
“There’s going to be combinations of guys that haven’t played next to each other and guys that haven’t played in a while,” Free said. “This, that, who knows exactly what’s all going to unfold. Yeah, it’s going to be a little bit of an issue, but the main thing is I think all of us have been together for a while, and hopefully we’ll be able to do a real good job out there.”
Free, 29, signed a four-year, $32 million deal with $17 million guaranteed before the start of the 2011 season. After giving up 9.5 sacks and drawing 10 penalties, including five holds, at left tackle in 2011, the Cowboys swapped Free with former first-round pick Smith.
Free then allowed seven sacks and drew a league-leading 13 penalties at right tackle in 2012. After taking every snap the first 12 games, Free took 179 snaps the final four games but lost 84 to Parnell.
Free, who had been scheduled to make $7 million this season, agreed to reduce his salary to $3.5 million.
Now, Free is moving inside without complaint, something his teammates admire.
“He’s been around this team for quite some time,” running back DeMarco Murray said. “He’s always played tackle. He knows the offense. Center, guard, whatever it is, he knows. He just wants whatever is best for this team. Whether it’s D-end, tackle — he’ll do it if they ask him to do it.”
Free has proved that before, and he’s proving it again.