If the regular season were to start tomorrow, the starting lineup for the Dallas Cowboys would likely include Doug Free remaining at his spot on the right side of the offensive line. Fortunately for the Cowboys, the team still has months to solve its struggles at right tackle with Eric Winston as a potential stop-gap at the position.
Free, 29, is one of three players on the Cowboys that will count more than $10 million against the salary cap in 2013. While the argument can certainly be made that Tony Romo and Anthony Spencer warranted that type of money with their play in 2012, it's tough to make the same argument for Free, who has tailed off in recent seasons.
A fourth-round selection in the 2007 NFL Draft, Free's contract wasn't unearned as he worked his way into the starting lineup by 2009 and was a very promising, young left tackle in 2010. However, his play dropped off shortly after he received a four-year, $32 million deal from the Cowboys, culminating in a 2012 season that featured 15 penalties called on Free and two more that were declined.
The Cowboys have reportedly asked Free to take a salary reduction, but even if he agrees to such a move, it doesn't alleviate the team's problems at right tackle. One potential solution is Winston, a zone-blocking tackle that would fit if Bill Callahan elected to switch away from the man-blocking scheme the Cowboys have used in the past.
Released by two teams in as many years, Winston didn't play poorly for the Houston Texans or Kansas City Chiefs before he was cut by both for salary cap reasons. Where Free earned a -10.1 grade from Pro Football Focus in 2012, Winston earned a +15.0, a step down from his +20.2 in the season prior.
On Tuesday, Cowboys executive vice president spoke about the team's interest in Winston:
"He's obviously somebody that we're taking a look at," Jones told the Elf & Slater show on 105.3 The Fan [KRLD-FM]. "We certainly haven't dismissed Doug [Free]. We really felt like when we went to rotating him and Jermey Parnell that he really picked up his game in terms of the competition, not to mention the fact that I think he got some clarity as to what [offensive line coach] Bill Callahan was after."
Winston said earlier in the offseason that he is looking for $3 million to $4 million per year, though, meaning that he wouldn't be much cheaper than Free, even if the incumbent starter took a salary cut. With just a week remaining until the 2013 NFL Draft, the Cowboys haven't made a move at the position, leaving the possibility that they could fix their offensive line issues at the end of the month with the addition of a rookie instead.
Owners of the No. 18, 47 and 80 picks in the first day, the Cowboys could find a player that plugs in as a starter on the right side. Among the possibilities are Alabama's D.J. Fluker, Florida State's Menelik Watson or Syracuse's Justin Pugh, among others.