Doug Free could have a lot of leverage

One item in ESPN.com’s report about the progress in NFL labor discussions should be of particular interest to Dallas Cowboys fans.

According to sources, the collective bargaining agreement being pitched to NFL owners on Tuesday would require players to have only four years of service before becoming an unrestricted free agent.

That would affect four Dallas free agents who would have been restricted under the 2010 system: left tackle Doug Free, defensive end Stephen Bowen, defensive end Jason Hatcher and receiver/special teams captain Sam Hurd.

Free’s status would be especially concerning to the Cowboys. They put the highest restricted tender (first- and third-round picks) on Free in March, determined to keep him after the 27-year-old performed well in his first full campaign as a starter. They’ve long planned to reach a long-term deal with Free after the lockout ended.

“He’ll be our No. 1 priority when things start up,” executive vice president Stephen Jones said the week of the draft. “We want to sign Doug back.”

Owner/general manager Jerry Jones acknowledged before the draft that it would be significantly more difficult to keep Free if four-year veterans were allowed to become unrestricted free agents.

"Under one set of circumstances, we've got to sign Free," Jones said. "Under another set, we may not be able to keep him. We'll see where we are."

The Cowboys drafted USC offensive tackle Tyron Smith with the ninth overall pick, selecting an offensive lineman in the first round for the first time during Jones’ 22-year ownership tenure. While Smith has the potential to play left tackle, the Cowboys drafted him to pair with Free, not replace the youngest member of the Dallas offensive line.

It could also cause the Cowboys problems if Bowen and Hatcher are unrestricted. They did not address their need for a defensive end in the draft. Marcus Spears, the starter until a midseason injury, is an unrestricted free agent. Bowen started the remainder of the season.

The Cowboys placed the second-round tender on Bowen and Hatcher, a strong sign they intended to keep both of them.

The Cowboys took a risk by not placing the franchise or transition tag on Free, who could have a lot of leverage when the lockout is lifted.