Competition for Doug Free fizzled

OXNARD, Calif. – The most highly anticipated position battle at Cowboys camp fizzled before it really got going.

Jermey Parnell is recovering from a strained hamstring suffered Monday, not pushing Doug Free for the starting job at right tackle. The Cowboys hope Parnell, who didn't get any first-team reps before getting hurt, can come back in a couple of weeks.

“There was going to be a healthy competition over there,” head coach Jason Garrett said, catching himself essentially declaring the competition closed. “There’s gonna be a healthy competition regardless. He’s going to have an opportunity to show what he can do and how he fits into this offensive line.

“Unfortunately for a young player like that, he missed this time. He missed it in the spring and also at the beginning of training camp. It’s critical time for him.”

It’s critical that the Cowboys get better play from this position than they did last season. Free performed so poorly -- ranking No. 66 in ProFootballFocus.com’s grades of offensive tackles -- that he split time with Parnell late in the season and then agreed to slash his salary in half to $3.5 million.

The Cowboys are optimistic that they can get Free, a 29-year-old who should be in his prime, to resemble the tackle who earned the four-year, $32 million contract extension in the first place. Free performed at a near Pro Bowl level in the latter half of 2008 and 2009.

The key for the 6-foot-6, 325-pound Free: playing with power.

“You would describe Doug as more of an athletic, finesse tackle,” Garrett said. “He has good length, he has good feet. The big thing for him is part of this game is being physical, being strong. He’s demonstrated that he can do that. He just has to do that on a more consistent basis. He knows that better than anybody else.

“Some of it’s technical, to use your hands. If you have length and you don’t use it, length doesn’t do you any good. If he has a strong punch that can be consistent for him, particularly in the pass game against wide rushers, I think that’s really, really important for him. I think he’s getting better at it. He’s getting more consistent using his hands.”