Free welcomes challenge from Barron
Cowboys' starting left tackle job won't be handed out, it will have to be earned
That doesn't mean the Dallas Cowboys intend to just hand the job to Free, which is fine with the fourth-year tackle who hopes to become a full-time starter for the first time.
"I don't care if they pencil you in as a starter," Free said after Monday's opening of organized team activities. "If you don't play well and you don't practice well, you ain't gonna start."
Free didn't need a trade for a former first-round pick at his position to figure that out. But Alex Barron has arrived at Valley Ranch with plans to earn a promotion from the second unit.
Veteran right tackle Marc Colombo isn't excluded from the competition, either. Offensive line coach Hudson Houck made it clear that the top two tackles will start.
The 6-foot-7, 315-pound Barron, who started 74 of the last 76 games for the St. Louis Rams, has significant experience at both tackle spots. Free (6-6, 313) started the final seven regular-season games at right tackle when Colombo was injured last year.
"This is a great thing to watch," Houck said. "This is fun. This is about competing. This is about team play. This is about seeing somebody step up to take a job. I'm really excited."
In all likelihood, the competition will come down to whether Free or Barron earns the right to protect Tony Romo's blind side.
You can certainly question whether it was wise to remove a five-time Pro Bowler from the equation, even though Adams is in decline as he approaches his 35th birthday.
The Cowboys can't be certain that Free can handle the most important job on the offensive line. They're confident he can, citing his quick feet, long arms, strong work ethic and performance on the right side last season. But he knows he still has a lot to prove, particularly on the left side.
"I definitely showed them that I can play," Free said. "I think I did a pretty good job last year. People have said that. But are they going to give it to me? No. I'm definitely going to have to work and earn it."
Barron has a track record as a starting left tackle. The best thing Houck could say about that was that the Barron "wasn't all that bad with a bad team." Basically, Barron had the same major flaw as Adams (43 false starts in five seasons) and not nearly as much power. Oh, and he led the league in holding penalties last season and allowed too many sacks.
However, Houck said he won't judge Barron based on his performance with the Rams, who parted with him in exchange for linebacker Bobby Carpenter in a swap of players considered first-round busts.
The Cowboys gave Barron a first-round grade in their preparations for the 2005 draft and hope to see him fulfill that potential here, much like Colombo did after arriving at Valley Ranch after injuries made him a first-round bust for the Chicago Bears.
Barron is an excellent athlete for a lineman, having recorded one of the fastest 40 times for a tackle in the history of the scouting combine. (Not that tackles run 40 yards very often. Free's remarkable dash for a downfield block on a touchdown run in the NFC East-clinching win over the Philadelphia Eagles was an exception.)
If motivation was a problem for Barron in St. Louis, it shouldn't be in Dallas. He has the opportunity to contribute to a playoff team and would hate to be a backup for the first time in his career.
"It makes you a little hungrier," Barron said. "There's no question if I can do it or not. In that matter, I ain't really trippin'. It's just work, scratching off a little rust, trying to get the terminology down and trying to get in there."
Free plans to make that as difficult as possible. It's a position battle that certainly won't be decided during OTAs or minicamps, when players don't wear pads.
But it might be a pretty good heavyweight fight during training camp and the preseason. If it isn't, there's reason for concern about Romo taking knockout blows from the blind side.