Doug Free probably feels like the odd man out at times.
When people are effusing praise on the Dallas Cowboys' offensive line they always mention the three first-round picks; Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin. They will also often talk about La'el Collins, the first-round talent who went undrafted due to unusual circumstances. Free may get a token mention as an experienced veteran, but often he is taken for granted.
Entering his 10th season, the veteran right tackle is still solidified in his position. There is no reserve player who appears able to challenge him. Even Chaz Green, who Dallas spent a third-round pick on in 2015, is reportedly moving to guard.
Nobody thinks Free is an elite player. He has limitations in pass protection and is still one of the most penalized players on the team. That said, Free is an excellent run blocker. With the Cowboys drafting Ezekiel Elliott and clearly looking to lean on the rushing attack like they did in 2014, Free's value is still high in Dallas.
It's next year when things get interesting. Free's contract becomes an attractive salary cap-clearing option; $6.5 million cap hit and only $1.5 in dead money for a savings of $5 million. Dallas will have a fresh offseason with which to consider drafting or signing a replacement.
Drafting a replacement for Free may sound risky. Unless it's one of the top talents in the class, the idea of inserting a rookie into the starting lineup is rightfully concerning. I don't think the Cowboys would go this route, especially if Tony Romo is still their quarterback.
Free agency (no pun intended) would be the likely option. The question is if you can find a worthy replacement for Free without eating up all of the cap savings you earned by releasing him. If not, then is it really worth doing?
Contracts for offensive tackles are far more lucrative than interior linemen. For example, Jermey Parnell left Dallas last year with a 5-year, $32 million deal from Jacksonville. This was a guy who was never as good as Free in Dallas, and yet he ended up making about the same money.
It will likely to come down to what specific players the Cowboys see in the 2017 free agent pool. If they spot somebody who they think they can sign to a bargain contract and still get close to the same production value out of, they should strongly consider the deal.
According to OverTheCap.com, Free is just below the Top 10 in right tackle salaries. His skill as a run blocker is equal to that but his pass protection is not. In the NFL you are always gauging performance against salary and Free has always lived on the borderline.
There's a strong possibility, of course, that Free will stick around in 2017 as his contract expires. That would afford Dallas the chance to draft their next right tackle who could develop for a season behind the veteran. This is the most likely scenario based on present information.
However, when we get to the next offseason, Free's contract will still stick out as one of the more profitable cap casualties. We will certainly be addressing this topic again.