FRISCO, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys have three All-Pro offensive lineman in Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin and another, Ronald Leary, who’s probably having the best season of his career.
Right tackle Doug Free has started more games than all of them.
Free, a full-time starter since the 2010 season, has started 114 games since being drafted in the fourth round of the 2007 draft from Northern Illinois.
The 32-year-old Free signed a three-year, $15 million contract with the Cowboys in 2015, with $6 million guaranteed.
Obviously, he’s much closer to the end of his career than the beginning. At times this year, he has been good. Other times, he has been average.
He’s tied for the team lead with seven penalties.
The Cowboys need him at his best Sunday, when he’ll probably see quite a bit of Green Bay Packers pass-rusher Julius Peppers, who has 143.5 career sacks and is playing his best football of the season.
Peppers has 8.5 sacks this season, second on the team, and five in the past eight games. He also has 4.5 sacks in the five playoff games he has played in for the Packers.
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett is not concerned about it. He knows Free will compete as hard as he can for as long as he can.
The Cowboys will need Free to play well because they will need to control the ball and keep Green Bay’s offense off the field.
The best way to do that is by having success with Ezekiel Elliott, who gained 157 yards on a season-high 28 carries when the teams met in October. It’s also important to limit the minus plays -- sacks and tackles for loss that can wreck a drive.
Peppers specializes in both of those. He had a sack and a forced fumble in the Cowboys' 30-16 win over Green Bay earlier this season.
With 1:32 left in the first quarter, Peppers beat Free around the edge and hit quarterback Dak Prescott's arm as he was about to throw, forcing the fumble.
Free didn’t start then. Now, he does. Garrett believes he’ll play well.
“It starts with the kind of person he is. He’s a professional. He’s always ready. He’s always prepared. He works very hard at his craft,” Garrett said. “He’s got long arms and big hands and he’s just a very good player across the board.
“He understands what his strengths are and maybe some of his weaknesses he has and he understands how to play around those.”