Nobody Likes A Lockout … Almost

The longer the NFL lockout goes, the more frustrating it is for everyone: owners, players, media and fans.

Players on teams throughout the league are working out, or at least some of them are, in anticipation of the start of the 2011 season … whenever that is. Owners are preparing contingency plans in case the upcoming season is an abbreviated one. Fans are paying more and more attention to college football.

But at least two people might be smiling somewhere about the lockout: Dallas tackle Doug Free and his agent, Jimmy Sexton.

That's not to suggest that either wants to see the 2011 season cancelled or even shortened — they undoubtedly would rather be planning for Free's appearance at training camp. But after his first season as a starter, Free finds himself as a free agent. Until the labor dispute between the NFL's owners and players is resolved, and the league's negotiating rules for the upcoming season are in place, it won't be known whether he is a restricted or unrestricted free agent. But either way, he is due for a large raise.

Free made a reported $550,000 last season. After the season, he received the highest possible offer from the Cowboys: a first- and third-round tender that guarantees him a salary of $3.5 million next year. But if the team wants to lock him up for more than a year, it can negotiate a longer contract, which will require a substantially higher salary. The team could make sure Free doesn't leave town by slapping the franchise tag on him, but that would guarantee Free a salary of just over $10 million per season — a pretty lofty price tag for the team's 2007 fourth-round pick who has appeared in 33 games, starting 23, in four NFL seasons.

But back to the point: the reason Free and Sexton might be quietly enjoying the lockout, at least a little, is because the longer it goes on, the less time teams will have to prepare, and the shorter the preparation time is, the more likely it is that Free will remain at left tackle … which means more money.

When he was drafted in April, Tyron Smith made some comments about how the Cowboys want him to come in and play left tackle. Few, if any, interpreted that to mean they expected him to sit on the bench, so a little deductive reasoning leads to the conclusion that Free and Smith would flip: Smith would play on the left, while Free would play on the right.

Right or wrong, left tackles make more than their counterparts at the other end of the line of scrimmage. Consider the following salaries:

• Washington's Trent Williams, a rookie in 2010, is due to make nearly $8 million in 2011 and $11 million in 2012.

• Philadelphia's Jason Peters is set to make almost $6 million next season, and almost $8 million in 2012.

• San Diego's Marcus McNiell is owed $10 million this season, and $10.5 next year.

• Miami's Jake Long is scheduled to make a little over $11 million each of the next two seasons.

Does anyone really think Sexton doesn't want his client viewed as a left tackle when negotiations begin? Of course he does.

The Cowboys have made no secret of the fact that they view re-signing Free as arguably their top offseason priority, whenever the league opens for business again, and after a strong showing in his first season as a starter, Free and Sexton find themselves in a decent bargaining position.

But the key to a really massive payday might well be the lockout. If the Cowboys view Smith as their left tackle of the future, the mini-camps and Organized Team Activities (OTAs) teams normally hold at this time of year are extremely valuable teaching sessions. It's hard enough for a rookie to adjust to the size and speed of NFL opponents, but he also has to learn a new system and the terminology that goes along with it. In addition, no position group requires the development of timing and chemistry that the offensive line does, and each day that the lockout drags on is a day Smith can't be working with his new teammates … and therefore an extra day of leverage for Free.

Dallas had the NFL's highest payroll last year (at nearly $125 million), and already has nearly $10 million more than that committed to players for 2011 … and that's without signing any free agents or draft picks. In addition, team officials have said the Cowboys will reduce their payroll this season, so some former players will be set free.

If he is made an unrestricted free agent, Free will have other teams interested in signing him, so the Cowboys will have to be aggressive while staying within the parameters of their team budget. But protecting Tony Romo's blind side is one of the most important jobs on the team, and the longer the lockout goes on, the less time Smith would have to make the transition to the left side … thereby strengthening Free's bargaining position every day.

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