Yesterday, I argued that the top way to improve the Cowboys’ offense in 2013 is to get the ball deep to Dez Bryant. That’s not a possibility on every play, obviously, especially if Tony Romo doesn’t have time to throw the football. Perhaps the best way to give Romo more time in the pocket is to bench underperforming right tackle Doug Free.
Astonishingly, the Cowboys decided to restructure Free’s contract instead of cutting him. Many argue that Free was once a really good player who has seemed to lose it, but that doesn’t seem all that likely. More probable is that Free—the guy with sub-par athleticism who continually loses at the point-of-attack—overachieved for one season and, like all random fluctuations, has seen his play regress toward the mean, i.e. the real Free has been exposed.
But who could possibly play in Free’s place? Well, the Cowboys probably should have tried harder to upgrade the position, but of the choices on the roster right now, the starter should be Jermey Parnell. Let’s compare their 2012 stats. I tracked Free as allowing seven sacks in 674 snaps in pass protection—a 1.03 percent sack rate. Meanwhile, Parnell allowed five sacks in only 191 snaps in pass protection—a 2.6 percent sack rate.
So how could I possibly say Parnell was better than Free last year? Well, sacks are notoriously fluky, meaning they’re a really, really poor way to judge linemen. Instead, pressures—the times a lineman allowed his man to reach the quarterback, sack or not—are a better indicator of pass protection. And in 2012, Free gave up 41 pressures, compared to eight for Parnell. Those numbers equate to 6.1 percent and 4.2 percent pressure rates, respectively.
This is all statistical talk for a simple fact: based on how he played, Free got really lucky to allow just seven sacks last year, while Parnell was unlucky to allow five. I’ve found that a lineman’s sacks allowed typically add up to 25 percent of the pressures he’s yielded. That means Free’s most likely sack total in 2012 was 10, while Parnell’s was two.
When you add in the fact that Parnell is a superior run blocker with a far higher ceiling than Free—a player who is growing versus one who has faded—the choice for who should be starting at right tackle for Dallas in 2013 is an easy one.
Jonathan Bales is the founder of The DC Times. He writes for DallasCowboys.com and the New York Times. He's also the author of Fantasy Football for Smart People: How to Dominate Your Draft.