Doug Free isn’t used to watching from the sidelines.
This is a guy who has been a staple on the Dallas Cowboys’ offensive line since the 2010 season, starting 70 consecutive games before a foot injury knocked him out of the lineup in Week 7 against the New York Giants last year.
Free returned in Week 10 against Jacksonville after a three-game absence but suffered an ankle injury in Week 15 against Philadelphia and missed the rest of the season.
Free underwent foot/ankle surgery to remove bone spurs and clean up a stress fracture in his foot early in the off-season, and he is still rehabbing it. It’s a new process for Free, who spent organized team activities and minicamp working on the side rather than with the rest of the team.
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“It is strange, definitely different,” Free said during minicamp. “I’m not used to being out there without having the helmet on and stuff. But I’m doing what I can do and helping the young guys as much as I can and trying to make this team better.”
Free admitted there is a sense that he is behind the rest of the team. He expects, however, to be a full go when training camp begins July 28 in Oxnard, Calif.
“I’ve done the mental preparation as best I can and also the physical stuff what I can do,” he said. “I’m keeping up with it and just planning on getting to training camp a little fresher maybe than some other people.”
Free, 31, going into his ninth season, had been relatively injury free until 2014. He couldn’t play through the foot and ankle injuries, even though he tried.
Jermey Parnell proved to be a suitable backup in Free’s absence, though there was some hope that Free could return if the Cowboys made it deep enough into the postseason. But, ultimately, Free’s injury required surgery.
“I’m not sure we knew exactly what we were dealing with or things possibly changed after our first diagnosis,” Free said. “It was just a thing last year, anything I could do to help this team. I tried to keep going, you know?
“It was difficult. It was challenging because you want to be out there with your guys. You’re not used to just watching.”
Free went on to discuss his role as the veteran voice in the offensive linemen meetings. He has seen the tables turn from when he first joined the organization. When he arrived as a fourth-round draft pick in 2007 out of Northern Illinois, he learned from veterans such as Flozell Adams, Marc Colombo, Kyle Kosier and Leonard Davis.
Now, Free is the one taking players such as center Travis Frederick and right guard Zack Martin under his wing. Eight years, Free admitted, has gone by fast. But he’s embracing his role and sharing any advice he can with the younger guys.
“Doug’s a great part of our offensive line and has been very important in what we’ve developed,” Frederick said. “As a leader of that group and somebody that has the experience, he’s kind of shown us the way. … He’s a guy who’s going to point us in the right direction and tell us when we’re screwing up.”
Free also supported the Cowboys’ decision to sign undrafted rookie free agent La’el Collins. Some within the Cowboys feel that Collins could eventually become Free’s successor, but for now Collins is getting most of his work at left guard.
“It’s great,” Free said of the Collins signing. “Any time you can pick up talent, pick up guys who can help your group, why not?”
Free didn’t seem overly concerned about losing his job. After all, there’s a reason the Cowboys didn’t let Free get away in free agency, signing him to a three-year, $15 million extension with $6 million in guarantees.
“There’s always a possibility of going other places, but I’m happy to be here,” Free said. “I’ve been here eight years already, so I built a strong relationship and I’m happy to continue it.”
Drew Davison, 817-390-7760
Key Cowboys dates
July 28: Team reports to training camp in Oxnard, Calif.
July 30: First full team practice
Aug. 9: Blue/White Scrimmage
Aug. 13: Preseason, at Chargers, 9 p.m.
Aug. 23: Preseason, at 49ers, 7 p.m.
Aug. 28: Break camp
Aug. 29: Preseason, vs. Vikings, 6 p.m.
Sept. 3: Preseason, vs. Texans, 7 p.m.
Sept. 13: Season opener, vs. Giants, 7:30 p.m.