Jerry: Doug Free at guard could be fixture

ARLINGTON, Texas – It sounds as if Jerry Jones has figured out what he believes is the Dallas Cowboys' best combination of five offensive linemen.

Jones strongly hinted that he envisions the Cowboys entering the season with an offensive line featuring Tyron Smith at left tackle, Ronald Leary at left guard, Travis Frederick at center, Doug Free at right guard and Jermey Parnell at right tackle.

Jones shied away from stating unequivocally that this is the Cowboys’ best five, but he indicated that the team’s interest in signing a starting-caliber guard such as Brian Waters waned after evaluating Free’s performance in Saturday’s preseason game.

“We’ve got to be a little guarded because Free was nothing short of amazing to come in and play at the level he played,” Jones said. “You’d have to be real careful making a pretty significant commitment relative just to the cap standpoint at this juncture, relative to looking to the future.

“Amazing that he played how he played not having played the position before, but playing at a level that we can win with.”

Jones left little doubt that Leary, whom the Cowboys expect to recover from arthroscopic knee surgery in time to play in the Sept. 8 opener, would return as the starter at left guard.

“Play 'em both,” Jones said of Leary and Free, adding that Parnell has proved he can start at right tackle, leaving Mackenzy Bernadeau as the odd man out. “I would hope that Leary comes back, and should as a starter. That’s the way he left. Play 'em both.”

If the Cowboys go with the group that Jones suggests is the best-case scenario, Smith would be the team’s lone first-team offensive lineman with so much as a single NFL start at his current position. And he’s far from a grizzled veteran at age 22, having played left tackle last season for the first time since his high school years.

Frederick, a first-round pick like Smith, has given the Cowboys reason to believe he’ll be able to step right in and be solid at center. He’s wise beyond his years, but he’s still a rookie.

Leary went undrafted last year and spent his rookie season on the practice squad before being called up for the final game, when he was inactive. And he’ll have to chip off a few weeks of rust before making his regular-season NFL debut.

Parnell, 27, made a fill-in start at left tackle last season and played about a third of the snaps at right tackle in the final four games. You could make the case that Parnell is the least-experienced offensive lineman on the team, considering he was a college basketball player at Ole Miss and never played offensive line until the Saints signed him as an undrafted project in 2009 and stashed him on their practice squad.

Free, 29, the graybeard of the group, has 55 games of starting experience at the two tackle spots but had never played a snap at guard until last week. His experience at guard consists of six days of practice and one half’s worth of work in a preseason game.

“I think we’re better in the offensive line than anytime in the last two or three years,” Jones said last week.

That’s the epitome of faint praise, more of a statement about the inferior lines of recent years than anything. But the Cowboys hope an unproven unit can be adequate.