Parnell split the right tackle duties over the final month of the 2012 season. His only start came at left tackle on Thanksgiving when Tyron Smith was hurt and unable to play because of a short week of preparation.
Had Parnell shown enough to win over the coaches and front office, there would not be this amount of discussion about keeping Free, who struggled in 2012. Over the last few weeks, the Cowboys – well, Jerry and Stephen Jones at least – have made it clear that it is time they start using younger players sooner, the way other teams across the league do.
That’s a fine thing for them to say while a coach like Jason Garrett does everything he can to hang on to a job. He has to win games this year, not necessarily develop players.
The Cowboys picked up Parnell off New Orleans’ practice squad in 2010 but he was inactive for the 12 games he was on the Cowboys’ roster. In 2011, he played in six games but never took significant snaps.
The Cowboys gave him a $1 million signing bonus before the 2012 draft, hoping he could continue to develop from basketball player at Ole Miss to tackle in the NFL. He was active for every game last season but struggled early in the year when he was asked to play as the No. 3 tight end in short-yardage and goal line situations.
The Cowboys lived with Free’s struggles for the first 12 games before finally relenting and putting Parnell at right tackle on every other series. He was OK. Nothing great and not as good as Free down the stretch.
And that’s why the Cowboys – well, at least Stephen Jones – have been emphatic about wanting to keep Free, but at a reduced rate from the $7 million he is scheduled to make this season.
For better or worse, Free is their guy and Parnell remains a mystery.