As the NFL Draft approached, there was speculation — a lot of speculation — that Dallas might spend its first-round pick on a tackle, ostensibly to find a player who could leapfrog over Free into the starting left tackle spot. Then, even after owner Jerry Jones decreed that Free would be the team's starter, the Cowboys traded for Alex Barron, the former St. Louis first-round pick who had underachieved with the Rams but boasts absurd athletic gifts. Again, despite Jones's proclamation that Free would be the starter, the whispers started: Barron will be the starter.
For the time being, at least, that's not the case.
The Cowboys began their first OTA (Organized Team Activity) Monday at Valley Ranch, and there was Free, playing left tackle with the first-team offensive line. When the media converged in the locker room afterward, Free probably did more interviews than he has since the Cowboys drafted him out of Northern Illinois in 2007. Leonard Davis tried to bait Free into laughing while doing a brief TV interview.
Free said he is flattered that Jones declared him the starter, but he also realizes his grip on the position is tenuous, at best.
"If I don't play well, they're not going to just give me the spot," he said. "This is an opportunity to prove to the coaches what I can do."
So despite the fact that the boss (Jones) has all but declared Free the starter at left tackle — he even has said Barron will back up Free and right tackle Marc Colombo — Free sees the job as still up for grabs.
"The position is open," he said. "I don't even know how to talk about that. They can pencil me in as a starter, but if I don't play well, they're going to find someone else.
"Nothing is set in stone until the first game."
Free acknowledged that he heard the talk about the Cowboys possibly drafting a tackle — they did select Notre Dame's Sam Young in the sixth round, but he isn't viewed as a potential starter, at least not right away — but said he didn't allow himself to worry to much about the possibility of being replaced.
"I wasn't nervous about that," he said. "What I can do, I do. Whatever the organization is going to do — that's up to them.
"I felt like I definitely showed last year that I can play, and I'm just thankful that the team seems to have some confidence in me. You can't feel the pressure. You have to just go out and prove them right. That's what I'm going to do — keep working, so they'll continue to have that confidence."
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