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Free No More: Solving The Cowboys' Cap Problems

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Doug Free was often more of a hindrance than help to the Cowboys. Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images.
Doug Free was often more of a hindrance than help to the Cowboys. Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images.

The Dallas Cowboys have a problem with no obvious solution: offensive lineman Doug Free has his head on a chopping block, and all he can do is wait for the axe to fall or for a last second reprieve. Free carries a hefty $10 million salary cap hit in 2013, and a very poor 2012 season that has many Cowboys fans calling for his replacement.

The problem is replacing Free is not so automatic because of the big cap hit he brings. Dallas might decide to roll the dice and keep Free while hoping he returns to the 2010 form that led to his huge contract. More likely, the Cowboys will try to get Free to rework his deal and take a pay cut. But Dallas could wait until June 1st, cut Free and chop his cap hit in half for 2013 while deferring the remaining $5 million to next year.

A recent rumor has Dallas pursuing free agent lineman Eric Winston, and this makes sense whether Free eventually agrees to a salary cut or if Dallas cuts him in June. If Free agrees to a pay cut, Dallas can sign Winston and make Free compete to keep his job. If he can keep it, it will mean much needed improved play from the weakest link on Dallas’ line. And if Free decides to play financial chicken by refusing to take a pay cut, the Cowboys can sign Winston — who is looking for $3-4 million — which will likely improve the line and save a small amount of money.

The smart move for all concerned is for Free to follow the example of lineman David Diehl and the Giants: Diehl accepted a pay cut of around $3.5 million on a much smaller contract to help his team. Free may not be so willing to do so because the money he would surrender would likely go to his replacement, but that doesn’t have to be the case.

Should Dallas sign Winston, Free could shift inside and play guard while staying in the starting lineup and still being well paid. If Free believes that the Cowboys are bluffing with Winston and refuses to budge, he would receive $5 million a year for the next two years, but would likely be out of football as not too many teams would be willing to pick up a player who has struggled for two consecutive seasons.

Cutting their losses and sending Free packing is the best option for the Cowboys. Nothing in what Free has done the past two seasons gives any indication that he will revert back to his 2010 form — at least at tackle. But if Dallas can keep Free, acquire Winston and still spend a little less money than they would have if they did nothing at all, then that might make the most sense. A move to guard could be the cure to what has ailed Free and, at the very worst, he would probably be a better backup player than anyone Dallas would draft in the later rounds.