- Tim MacMahon, ESPN Staff Writer
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Free, who accepted a pay cut that slashed his salary in half instead of being released this offseason, has been phenomenal in the Cowboys’ first three games. ProFootballFocus.com’s grades rank Free as the No. 1 tackle in the NFL so far this season.
By comparison, ProFootballFocus.com ranked Free 44th and 66th during the first two seasons of his four-year, $32 million contract, which explains why the Cowboys insisted on tearing up the deal.
“He’s responded really well,” coach Jason Garrett said. “We’ve talked a lot about how we rotated him at the end of last season. He responded well to that, responded in the offseason, came back in great shape and was ready to go. He really has been impressive since the start of OTAs, really trying to take advantage of the opportunity.
“I think he’s working on some technical things that will help him. I think he’s playing tougher and he’s staying on blocks, both as a pass-protector but also in the run game.”
Perhaps the pay cut has given Free a renewed sense of urgency. Free, whose performance improved after he started splitting time with Jermey Parnell late last season, has probably benefited from being more familiar with offensive coordinator Bill Callahan’s zone-blocking scheme.
“When you’re working with a new offensive line coach, there are new techniques that you use,” Garrett said. “For a guy who has played a little bit, sometimes there’s some unlearning that has to happen. I think that’s a cycle and a progression that has to happen for a player, but Doug’s a smart guy. I think he understands where he is in his career. He’s developing more and more confidence, and he’s technically becoming better and better.”