Keep an eye on Doug Free

When the Dallas Cowboys released longtime left tackle Flozell Adams, owner Jerry Jones announced that Doug Free would go into his fourth NFL season as the team's starting left tackle.

Nearly six weeks later, Dallas traded for tackle Alex Barron.

Coincidence? Not at all. If Jones says Free has the inside track on the starting job, then it's pretty likely that that is exactly how things will appear on the depth chart when the Cowboys hold their first practice in training camp in San Antonio. That might be the pecking order at the position throughout the preseason games, and even into the season.

But has learned that Jones might be touting Free as his choice to start, but within the halls of Valley Ranch, the gap between Free and Barron is miniscule and shrinking.

Free is a little heavier and more powerful. Barron, acquired from the St. Louis Rams for former Dallas first-round pick Bobby Carpenter, is an inch taller and far more athletic. In the team's mini-camps and Organized Team Activities (OTAs), Free worked with the first-team offensive line, but Barron got acclimated to his new team fairly quickly, picking up the blocking schemes and learning the terminology the Cowboys' offensive line employs.

One factor that might cost Barron in his pursuit of the starting job is his flexibility — he has too much of it, if that's possible. When he was playing for the Rams, he earned playing time at each tackle position in the St. Louis offense, and there is one school of sought that suggests that Barron's ability to play either tackle spot might convince the Dallas coaches that he is too valuable as a substitute because of his ability to step into the lineup at either tackle position.

Free also is thought to be flexible enough to play on either side, but up until this point, many have seen him only on the left side, when he filled in last year when Adams was hurt. But his lesser athleticism was exposed last year in the Cowboys' season-ending playoff loss to the Minnesota Vikings. Jared Allen, the Vikings' defensive end and ace pass rusher, raced past Free repeatedly and zeroed in on Dallas quarterback.

Free was hardly the only offensive tackle Allen victimized last year — he piled up 14.5 quarterback sacks in each of the last two seasons, and 15.5 in the 2007 campaign.

When faced with bigger, stronger defensive ends, Free has shown he has the ability to stand his ground and keep Romo upright. He also seems to have limitless energy, as displayed when he often races downfield looking for an additional defender to block.

But if the Cowboys decide they need more quickness on Romo's blind side, they might well turn to Barron. Before he headed to Florida State, the South Carolina native was considered one of the top basketball players the southeastern United States (he even had offers to play lower-level college basketball). When St. Louis drafted him with the 19th overall pick of the 2005 NFL Draft, his attribute the team trumpeted the loudest was his rare athletic ability.

Free will, without question, begin training camp this weekend as the starting left tackle; after all, Jones declared that right after Adams was cut loose. But apparently the race for the starting job is, in the eyes of some, much closer than Jones indicated. Whether he will justify his decision to dump Adams by demanding that Free remains the starter remains to be seen, and maybe Free will perform so well that he simply takes the position and makes it his own. But don't be surprised to see Barron getting more and more playing time with the first unit as the preseason and regular season wear on.

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