Under the Microscope: Doug Free

Every season there are good players who get overlooked or are undervalued across the NFL. As we approach the regular season, Brandon Thorn will look at players who are not getting the appropriate level of attention from big media – or even smaller entities – and put them under the microscope to evaluate their skills and traits and see what others might not. Next up is Dallas Cowboys right tackle Doug Free.

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Objective

The offensive line is typically the most forgotten position group in terms of publicity, and it is also my favorite position group in football, so naturally much of my focus will be placed on them moving forward; increasing awareness for the big men up front will be an important goal for me with this series. I do, however, have experience evaluating most positions, and a diverse set of players will be incorporated as this idea continues to grow.

I will focus on 10 core traits for each position, with an emphasis on the positive traits shown by the player; I want to look at what players can do. In order for traits to be deemed positive they will need to be consistently shown throughout film study, not just during one game.

For this series, a minimum of six games – viewed and assessed in their entirety – will serve as a basis for each evaluation. Oftentimes I study more than six, as I prefer to gather as much information as I possibly can. An example of the broad context I aim to gather would involve evaluating multiple away games, home games, games against high and low level competition, bad weather, rivalry games, and games where the player is dealing with or coming off an injury. Personally, I believe, the more context built into my evaluation, the better the results.

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Player Background

Free enters the 2016 season as a nine-year veteran who has started 98 of 108 career games, all with the Dallas Cowboys. He has bounced back and forth between left and right tackle throughout his career, last playing left tackle in 2011 during current left tackle Tyron Smith’s rookie season. Smith took over the left tackle position in 2012, and Free has been at right tackle ever since.

Even though Free has played left tackle for the bulk of his college and NFL career, his move to the right side in 2012 has been a positive one for the Cowboys.




Asking a six-year veteran to switch positions is a tough sell, and a tall task for any player to endure. Although Free seemed to struggle with the switch initially, he has gradually improved each season on the right side and looked very much at home there in 2015.

Free was a fourth-round draft pick out of Northern Illinois in 2007, coming into the league as an athletic left tackle with 49 college starts, including starts at right tackle and tight end.


As the chart above highlights, Free is more athletic than typically given credit for. Although Free underwent offseason surgeries between the ‘14-’15 and ‘15-’16 seasons on his ankle and foot, he maintains solid enough athleticism to get the job done.

Free’s athletic profile serves as a strong foundation for the rest of his skill-set to shine through, but this isn’t how he wins at a consistent level as a pro. That stems from the high level of efficiency and technique demonstrated throughout his 2015 tape. More on this soon.  

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Stance Analysis

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First, I wanted to do a stance analysis on the Cowboys offensive line as a whole, and delve into some of the scheme that Dallas employs up front that is important context for what Free is asked to do.

What’s impressive about this shot is that each offensive lineman is in a functional stance that overall is uniform, while still maintaining each player’s individuality. Dallas aligns their OL as a two-part entity. If you look closely you will notice that the three interior offensive linemen have fairly close splits compared to the two tackles. In pass protection this effectively allows the interior three to function as their own unit on most plays, with the tackles functioning as individuals.

Let’s take a look at an example of what this looks like in real-time:

[jwplayer file=”http://cdn.insidethepylon.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Freevid1.mp4″ image=”http://cdn.insidethepylon.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Freevid1.jpg” stretching=uniform]

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As a unit there are two general styles that work best for the offensive line in pass protection. One is to set the tackles vertically and the interiorfree-stance-2 stoutly, creating a tall, narrow pocket. This puts a lot of pressure on the tackles vs. the bull rush, as there is very little space between them and the QB, so there is little margin for error. The 2015 Browns are a perfect example of this. The other style is what Dallas prefers, which is to have the offensive line set flatter across the board, and attempt to widen the pocket, creating maximum space for the QB to operate. The Saints are known for doing this as well.

free-stance-3The interior three still set firm, but the big difference is with the tackles, who are setting much flatter than the vertical set. This strategy is typically done with quarterbacks who aren’t getting too deep in their drop, and can step up decisively. The Cowboys mostly utilized this scheme in 2015, largely because of the trust in their tackles to not get beat cleanly.

Free’s two-point stance is functional, and looks natural. The 3 45s (toes, tibia, femur) of the catch leg are on display, with the heel on the ground (limiting vertical force at the snap). Free’s stance is slightly narrow at the feet in comparison to most guys his size, but it works for him.free-stance-4

This is a good three-point stance for a man who is 6-foot-6 and 323 pounds with long legs. There is good bend in his ankles, knees, and hips. For having gone through multiple surgeries below his knees, Free has maintained good mobility throughout his lower half, and it allows him to function at a high level post-snap. Remember, the foundation of an offensive lineman lies within their stance.

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Film Breakdown

Run-Game

Free wins by having a functional stance: being technically sound, calculated with his hands, balanced with a strong base, and by being extremely efficient in his movements. Very rarely is there any wasted movement in anything Free does either in the run or pass game, and this makes up for his limited athleticism from his previously mentioned injuries.

Free is a pro’s pro who is easily overlooked on the best offensive line in the NFL, but is a key cog in the machine nonetheless.

Context: Week 8, Dallas is down 10-9 on the road vs the Seattle Seahawks. It is 2nd and 12 with 6:39 left in the 3rd quarter. The Cowboys run wide zone out of 11 personnel, and Free’s responsibility is to cut the backside 3 tech lined up over RG Zack Martin.

[jwplayer file=”http://cdn.insidethepylon.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Freevid2.mp4″ image=”http://cdn.insidethepylon.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/freevid2.jpg” stretching=uniform]

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One of the hardest things to do as an offensive lineman is execute on a backside cut-off because of the explosiveness required out of the stance, advanced use/understanding of angles, and timing to know when to unlock your hips and shoot into the defender for the cut. Free does an excellent job here of getting his assignment on the ground.

Context: According to Mike Renner of Pro Football Focus, the Cowboys ran outside zone on 47.7 percent of their handoffs in 2015, good for fifth highest in the NFL.

Week 2 on the road in Philadelphia, the score is tied 0-0 with 5:41 left in the 1st quarter. The offense comes out in 13 personnel, with an additional offensive lineman on the field alongside Free. Dallas runs outside zone to the right, and Free is tasked with a reach block of Eagles LB Connor Barwin who is aligned head up over the sixth offensive lineman to Free’s right.

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Context: Week 2, this time we go to the 4th quarter with 9:09 remaining, and Dallas is up 13-3. This is the ninth play of the drive. It is 2nd and 1 from the opponent’s 30-yard line. The offense is again in 13 personnel. They have the left side of the OL show pass, while the RG / RT work a combo block to the Mike linebacker.

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I chose this play to highlight a technique Free routinely uses in the running game called the gallop technique, something that the Dallas coaches implement in their scheme. It’s used to cover ground on a combo block, and Free has the technique mastered.

Context: Week 8, at home vs the Seattle Seahawks, the score is 10-6 Seattle with 12:57 left in the 3rd quarter. The Cowboys are facing a 2nd and 4 from their own 48-yard line. The offense is in 11 personnel vs the defense’s nickel front, with SS Kam Chancellor walked down into the box. Seahawks DE Cliff Avril is aligned in a wide 9 technique opposite of Doug Free.

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Kicking out a defensive end who is aligned in a wide 9 technique can be difficult for a tackle considering the amount of space in between himself and the defender. Add in that Avril is a very good athlete, and it becomes even more of a challenge.

Free must execute footwork for a base block here with tremendous force on his drive-catch™ phase to get his hips opened up and squared up with the end. Pulling the outside hand backwards with force aids in getting his big body opened up and into position. Eliminating space as quickly and efficiently as possible is the goal here, and doing so with an accurate aiming point at the point of attack (POA). Free displays a good drive-catch, opens up and gets on his track quickly, he shows good mobility in his lower half and excellent hand placement to win leverage at the POA.

The first step to any successful block is for the lineman to get out of their stance with power and force, and it is the basis for success on this play.




Pass-Protection

Context: Week 1 of the 2015 regular season, the Cowboys are at home against the New York Giants. The score is tied 0-0 in the 1st quarter with 12:58 on the clock. Dallas faces a 1st and 10 on their own 29-yard line. Giants DE Robert Ayers Jr. is lined up across Free in a wide-9 technique.

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First, a quick review of the three rules of pass protection:

  1. Get out of stance
  2. Create Space
  3. Obtain / Maintain Half Man Relationship

At the inaugural Offensive Line Performance (OLP) clinic that I attended this past summer, CJ Davis defined the strike: A strike, in OL play, is attempting to redirect the force of a defensive player by generating force from the ground up, passing through the body, delivered by your palms.

All three steps of pass protection and a well-executed strike are demonstrated by Free in this clip.

Free executes the drive-catch™ phase at a very high level throughout his 2015 film. His strong start in pass protection, rather than elite athleticism, is what allows him to win at a consistent level.

Free creates force with the drive leg, which transfers to the catch leg (step 1 of pass pro), and this allows space to be created vs the rusher (step 2). Space in pass protection is the offensive lineman’s friend, at least initially.

The most impressive trait that Free possesses is the ability to use his hands. His hand placement, timing with his strike, independent hand usage, and ability to control defenders are all very good.

Let’s look at one more clip of Free executing another perfect drive-catch phase against the Seahawks in Week 8, which precludes a masterful display of hand usage versus good competition.

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This clip Free squares off against Patriots pass-rusher Chandler Jones who is aligned in a two-point stance as a wide 9 technique.

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The ability to counter for an offensive lineman is a critical component to achieving success on any given play. Regardless of how big and strong you are as a blocker, the man across from you is likely a much better athlete, so things will go awry more often than not. It’s not so much what happens on a play, rather how you react. Free’s reaction here is a display of patience, smarts, and discipline. He doesn’t panic, but instead utilizes an outstanding use of hands to get himself out of a mess against a very good NFL pass rusher.

Context: Week 1 again, this time the Cowboys face 1st and 10 from their own 20-yard line. The Giants are up 10-6 in the 2nd quarter with 55 seconds left in the half. This time Free has DE Damontre Moore in a wide-9 technique, with TE Jason Witten lined up to his right side.

[jwplayer file=”http://cdn.insidethepylon.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Freevid7.mp4″ image=”http://cdn.insidethepylon.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Freevid7.jpg” stretching=uniform]

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This clip shines light on Free’s ability to react decisively to the inside in pass protection. For most offensive lineman this is one of the most difficult aspects of pass protection, largely because many players tend to open up their hips prematurely to the outside, which gives the rusher a two-way go.

Again, footwork, timing, and mental processing are on point with Free, which allows him to turn a seemingly bad play into another win.

Despite not possessing elite athleticism like his counterpart, LT Tyron Smith, Free has a PhD in understanding his own body, and has mastered what works for him. Efficiency through the eight angles of OL play can overcome athletic ability, and Free is a testament to this concept.

One more example highlighting Free’s ability to react to the inside counter:

[jwplayer file=”http://cdn.insidethepylon.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Freevid10.mp4″ image=”http://cdn.insidethepylon.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Freevid10.jpg” stretching=uniform]

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Context: Week 1, it’s the 3rd quarter with the Giants up 16-6. The Cowboys have the ball on NY’s 45-yard line, it’s 1st and 10 with 8:00 on the clock. The offense is in 21 personnel. Free again has DE Robert Ayers Jr. aligned as a wide-9 technique.

[jwplayer file=”http://cdn.insidethepylon.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Freevid8.mp4″ image=”http://cdn.insidethepylon.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Freevid8.jpg” stretching=uniform]

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Pass-blocking on play-action is an extremely difficult task for offensive lineman because of having to show run first, and then retracing yourself to a pass. This goes against the three rules of pass protection because you are attempting to eliminate space before creating it, which puts even the best blockers at a major disadvantage.

Free overcomes this obstacle through outstanding reactionary quickness using his feet and hands. Maintaining a strong base throughout a play where the defender yanks your shoulder pads downward, repositioning your hands, and carrying the rusher past the QB on a play-action pass is a play usually reserved for elite players. That is a term typically not used in conjunction with Doug Free, even though he possesses traits that are.

Context: Week 2, in the 2nd quarter with 1:51 left on the clock. Dallas is up 3-0. Eagles LB Connor Barwin is lined up across from Free in a wide-9 technique.

[jwplayer file=”http://cdn.insidethepylon.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Freevid11.mp4″ image=”http://cdn.insidethepylon.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Freevid11.jpg” stretching=uniform]

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Oftentimes when an offensive tackle and a pass-rusher make initial contact, the outcome has already been decided.

Prior to contact is where technique, discipline, patience, and even deception come into play. Free shows a high-level of savviness on this snap. Beginning with the drive-catch™ phase, Free beats the rusher to the spot and gets to his set point quickly. The rusher attempts to work an inside-out move, but Free is two-steps ahead.

Free gives the illusion that he is going to make contact with the rusher with his right hand, provoking a response – in this case an attempted dip move by the rusher – but quickly retreats as the rusher commits to the dip. This throws the entire flow off for Barwin, who is forced to go to a counter move, which Free halts quickly. The aforementioned mind game Free plays with the rusher enables him to create a wide open throwing lane for QB Tony Romo.

Yet another wonderful example of “the game within the game” that occurs on each and every play in football. Free wins another battle with a good NFL pass-rusher using nuance and technique.

Speaking of illusion, here is one of my favorite clips from Free vs. his former teammate, George Selvie. Some may call this a false start, but slipping it by the refs is part of what defines a savvy veteran. Free most certainly fits the bill. 

[jwplayer file=”http://cdn.insidethepylon.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Freevid13.mp4″ image=”http://cdn.insidethepylon.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Freevid13.jpg” stretching=uniform]

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Conclusion

It is easy to watch the Cowboys offensive line and overlook Doug Free, but beneath the surface is one of the most technically sound offensive lineman in the NFL. Nothing Free does is necessarily flashy, but few are more steady or resourceful on a snap-to-snap basis.

As we go through the 2016 season, and if you find yourself watching a Cowboys game in awe of Tyron Smith’s kick-slide or Zack Martin’s brilliance (which you should be), take a second to look over to the far right side of the offensive line. There you will find Free, exemplifying grit, consistency, and a cunning display of technique regardless of the opposition.

Every all-time great offensive line has had at least one player who is neglected among big media, someone does the dirty work, and doesn’t get enough credit for it by the outside. Free is that guy for the Dallas Cowboys’ offensive line.

Follow Brandon on Twitter @VeteranScout. Read his piece on Kansas City Chief center Mitch Morse here.

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All film courtesy of NFL GamePass.

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