Cowboys position series: Offensive line

The fifth in ESPNDallas.com’s 10-part position series:

Roster locks: LT Tyron Smith, LG Nate Livings, C/G Travis Frederick, RG Mackenzy Bernadeau, RT Doug Free, T Jermey Parnell, C Phil Costa

On the bubble: G Ronald Leary, C/G Kevin Kowalski, G David Arkin, C/G Ryan Cook, C/G Kevin Kowalski, T Darrion Weems

Long shots: G Ray Dominguez, T Edawn Coughman, T J.B. Shugarts

What’s new?: For the second time in three years – and only the second time during Jerry Jones’ ownership tenure – the Cowboys invested a first-round pick in the offensive line.

There has been plenty of debate about whether Travis Frederick should have been a first-round pick, but there is no question that the Wisconsin product ranked on the Cowboys’ board as the No. 22 player and drafted 31st overall addresses a glaring need. Poor center play has been a problem for the Cowboys since Andre Gurode made his last couple of Pro Bowl trips based purely on reputation.

The Cowboys didn’t do anything to upgrade the weakest spot in the offensive line last season other than slash Doug Free’s paycheck in half, getting him to accept a $3.5 million salary that is still pretty handsome for a right tackle, particularly one who performed poorly in 2012.

Camp competition: The best battle should be at right tackle. Free is the favorite over Jermey Parnell, but his starting job is far from guaranteed.

Parnell performed adequately late last season when he shared time with Free at right tackle and during a one-game, fill-in stint at left tackle. Perhaps not coincidentally, Free’s play improved when he had to compete with Parnell for playing time.

There is supposedly a competition for the starting center job between Frederick and Phil Costa, but it’d be stunning if the first-round pick didn’t claim that job. Frederick, who was essentially anointed a decade-long starter by Jerry Jones on draft day, took all the first-team reps during offseason team workouts.

Ronald Leary, who spent much of his rookie season on the practice squad, has a chance to challenge incumbent starting guards Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau. The Cowboys considered Leary a third-round-caliber player and were elated to sign him as an undrafted free agent, but he was a disappointment during his rookie camp, in large part due to conditioning. He’s benefited from an NFL offseason. He has an opportunity to win a starting job, especially if injuries continue to be an issue for the veteran guards.

2013 hope: There’s a lot riding on Frederick. The Cowboys are counting on the 6-foot-3, 320-pound rookie to immediately be the brains of the offensive line as well as being a significant upgrade as a run blocker and pass protector.

As Jerry Jones has repeatedly said, the primary reason the Cowboys picked Frederick was to provide Tony Romo with “an extra half-second of time” in the pocket. For the running game to improve, Frederick must also be able to move defensive tackles off the line of scrimmage and be able to get to linebackers.

The expectation is that Smith, a phenomenally gifted 22-year-old, will make a major leap in his second season as the starter at left tackle.

It’d be great if Free reminded the Cowboys of the athletic tackle they deemed worthy of a four-year, $32 million contract that was torn up two years later. If the right tackle play is average, whether it’s Free or Parnell, it’d be a significant upgrade from last season.

Future forecast: Smith and Frederick will be fixtures at left tackle and center for a long time. The future for the other three spots on the offensive line is uncertain.

Right tackle could be one of the Cowboys’ top needs next offseason. If Frederick is as good as the Cowboys think he is, they believe they can get by with mediocre guard play.