Cowboys position series: Offensive tackle

This is the fifth installment of a 12-part series breaking down the Cowboys roster. Today we look at offensive tackles.

Players: Doug Free (signed through 2014), Tyron Smith (signed through 2014), Jermey Parnell (exclusive rights free agent).

Top free agents: Jared Gaither, San Diego Chargers; Demetrius Bell, Buffalo Bills; Max Starks, Pittsburgh Steelers; Kareem McKenzie, New York Giants; Jeff Backus, Detroit Lions.

Top draft prospects: Matt Kalil, USC; Riley Reiff, Iowa; Jonathan Martin, Stanford; Mike Adams, Ohio State; Zebrie Sanders, Florida State.

2011 review: Smith, who didn’t turn 21 until December, was one of the biggest bright spots in the Cowboys’ disappointing season. He immediately established himself as one of the NFL’s best right tackles, displaying all the tools to develop into an elite player for at least a decade. Free, on the other hand, was a major disappointment during the first season of his four-year, $32 million deal. There was a significant dropoff from Free’s first season as the starter at left tackle. He was dominated by Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul in the two meetings that determined the NFC East title and struggled in several other games.

Offseason preview: Although Free is coming off a down season, the Cowboys’ starting tackles should be set for at least the next few seasons. It is extremely likely that Smith and Free will switch sides. Smith is by far the Cowboys’ best offensive lineman, so it makes sense to put him in the premium spot of left tackle, protecting Tony Romo’s blind side. There would be less pressure on Free if he returns to right tackle, which he played when Marc Colombo was injured in 2009, although he’d still have to face fearsome NFC East pass rushers like the Giants’ Justin Tuck, the Eagles’ Jason Babin and the Redskins’ Ryan Kerrigan. The Cowboys need to address the lack of depth at the position, but that doesn’t merit a major investment in free agency or a high draft pick. Parnell is a developmental project who turns 26 this summer. He should have to compete to be the swing tackle again.

Bryan Broaddus’ Scout’s Eye: When looking back on the offensive tackle play for the Cowboys last season, the word "surpising" comes to mind. It was surprising that Doug Free went from a player that there were no worries about to a player that you really were not sure what you were going to get week to week. It was surprising that a 20-year-old rookie in Tyron Smith was your best and most consistent linemen. No one on the coaching staff or front office saw before the season what was going to happen to Free. The more questions I asked, the more different answers I got. Former offensive line coach Hudson Houck told me that it was a technique problem, while others stated it was the lack of an offseason in the weight room that hurt Free. To be honest, I really believe it was both. When I studied Free, he just couldn't get a in groove when it came to the use of his hands and feet. His punch was off and lacked power, and his footwork was like he had never executed a pass set. This time last year was when I observed Smith for the first time on tape when getting ready for the 2011 NFL Draft. In those games I watched, you could see a special player. To his credit, he came into camp and worked as hard as any young linemen that I had seen in my 13 years in the league. Day after day he worked on his craft, and it carried over into his play. Though he played right tackle in college, there is talk of shifting him to the left side. I don't have a problem with this, but what you have to remember is that there are different techniques on the left side that he will have to master. But if he works as hard as he did before his rookie season, there should be no problems. In 2012, I see a bounce-back year for Free if he is shifted to the right side. Look for the Cowboys to try and work some young tackles in the mix in the latter part of the draft or through free agency.

Need meter (0-5): 1.