Are the Cowboys gambling with Free?

INDIANAPOLIS -- The Cowboys elected to not at least secure Doug Free’s services for 2011 by placing the franchise tag on their left tackle.

Perhaps as soon as today the team will tender Free an offer – either the first- and third-round pick compensation or just a first rounder – in case he is a restricted free agent under the new collective bargaining. If in the new collective bargaining agreement a player is granted unrestricted free agency following his fourth season, then Free would be able to sign elsewhere without any compensation.

The franchise tag for an offensive lineman is $10.1 million. Carolina tagged center Ryan Kalil, and he quickly signed to guarantee him that money this year whenever football is played. The Cowboys had some talks with Free’s agent, Jimmy Sexton, about an extension but nothing materialized.

“I guess you’re always gambling if you don’t always take the safest route,” Executive Vice President Stephen Jones said. “The money for the franchise tag is obviously significant and it’s just a decision we needed to make with where we are with our team.”

Free started every game last year at left tackle in 2010, taking over for Flozell Adams and showed the ability to protect Tony Romo’s blindside at a high level. Only 27, Free would be one of the most-sought after left tackles because of his age and experience, which could leave the Cowboys vulnerable.

With all of the uncertainty because of the CBA, teams are not sure of the financial rules going forward or just how much room they would have under the salary cap. The Cowboys can create room by cutting some veteran players and re-working the contracts of DeMarcus Ware, Miles Austin and Romo, but they also have to factor in decisions they made in 2010 to cut veterans Flozell Adams and Ken Hamlin.

It is possible some or all of the dead money from those moves could count against the 2011 cap.