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Regarded as one of the elite offensive tackles in college football, Free almost gave up football before his career ever began. In ninth grade at Lincoln High School, Free was going to walk away from the game to work at a dairy farm. ''I was 15 years old, the job paid well and I loved what I was doing,'' he said. ''I kind of had to be talked back to football. And it all worked out.''
It worked out in part because the 5-10, 155-pound freshman sprouted into a 6-5, 210-pound sophomore. That spurt, along with his farm work and weightlifting, pushed Free onto some college radars, but none of the major programs came calling.
''There was talk with Wisconsin, the only I-A program in the state, about walking on as a freshman and maybe getting a scholarship as a sophomore,'' Free said. ''North Dakota and North Dakota State had interest. So did Minnesota-Duluth, where my brother Nic played. And Northern Illinois showed a lot of interest."
Once he saw the farms and fields surrounding NIU, Free quickly enrolled at the school.
At Lincoln High School, free lettered three times in football and was an Honor Roll student. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel rated Free the ninth-best prospect in the state. The team captain and Defensive Lineman of the Year added first-team All-Fox Valley Conference accolades on both offense and defense. He was a first-team Herald Times Reporter All-Area and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel All-State choice.
He led the team to a 7-3 record and a playoff berth, as the team finished second in the league. Free recorded 64 tackles, eight sacks, seven blocked kicks, six forced fumbles, five pass deflections and two fumble recoveries as a defensive tackle in 2002. He also had six receptions for 141 yards and a touchdown as a tight end. As a junior, he added first-team All-FVC recognition.
Free redshirted in 2002 at Northern Illinois and was penciled in as a reserve on the offensive line (third on the depth chart) entering 2003 fall camp. Free became the starter after a tragic event in which Shea Fitzgerald was killed with 12 others in the collapse of a back porch during a party in Lincoln Park. ''I still have trouble talking about that,'' Free said.
But Fitzgerald's tragic departure cleared the way for Free. Ever since starting the 2003 opener, a 20-13 win over Maryland, he became a fixture at left tackle. He also became the bodyguard for All-American tailback Garrett Wolfe over his next 49 consecutive starts.
Free registered 40 knockdowns in 2003. The following season, the Sophomore All-American third-team and second-team All-Mid American Conference choice participated in 878 total snaps (806 on offense and 72 on placement kick unit) in 12 starts. He lined up at left tackle for the first 10 games before shifting to tight end. He led the offensive line with a 91 percent blocking grade and 17 flat-back blocks. He also finished fourth on the team with 67 knockdowns.
As a junior in 2005, Free was named first-team All-MAC, as he again graded 91 percent for blocking consistency. He was also nominated for MAC All-Academic and CoSIDA District V All-Academic honors with 3.24 grade point average as an Industrial Technology major. He made 49 knockdowns and 13 flat-back blocks while seeing action in 806 plays.
Free earned first-team All-MAC accolades in 2006. He was a semifinalist for the National Football Foundation's Draddy Award, honoring combined academic success, football performance and exemplary community service,e and received "Halfway All-American" recognition by CBSSportsLine.com at the season's midpoint.
Free registered 59 knockdowns and 10 flat-backs, but he struggled with health issues all year. He was bothered by a groin pull in fall camp, and then suffered a right foot stress fracture when his leg was stepped on in the season opener vs. Ohio State. He played in the next two games before telling trainers of the injury, and the fracture was then treated. He was forced to attend classes wearing a boot to protect the foot. This limited his range and quickness on the field. His season would come to a sad end when he allowed two sacks and three stops behind the line of scrimmage in his final game, vs. Texas Christian in the Poinsettia Bowl.
NIU head coach Joe Novak recently praised Free, saying, "No question, Doug has the talent to play on Sundays. Knock on wood, I believe he's going to be a first-round draft pick. Doug Free's a lot better athlete than Ryan Diem. (Free) can run! You just don't see many offensive linemen that can run at that size like he can. What's impressive is he'll sit back in pass protection and then we'll throw the ball down the field and he'll run down field and block a safety. I mean, get downfield! You just don't see kids who can do that. He's special. Our kids call him 'Doug Freak' because he runs so well."
Positives: Has a thick upper body with wide hips and thighs, with room to add at least another 15-20 pounds with no loss in his impressive quickness (5.09 40-yard dash)…Very agile for a player his size and possesses very good lower body weight room numbers (565-pound squat, 350-pound power clean)…Shows good flexibility on the move and demonstrates good knee bend in his kick slide…Hard worker in practices and the training room who will do the little extras to improve…Well-liked by the team and staff, taking pride in his leadership role…Has a good understanding of blocking schemes and is alert to twists and games…Slides out with good quickness and arms extending to defeat the edge rush…Does a nice job adjusting to action working in space, coming off the ball with good urgency…Hardly ever in a position of disadvantage and uses his long arms to reach and seal…Can set quickly in the short area and has the feet to mirror moves in one-on-one situations…More of a finesse/position and sustain type of blocker, but has the quickness and movement skills to fire off the snap on pulls and traps…Effective at reaching or turning the defender in when he keeps good hand placement…Pulls with good speed and can locate and land in space…Does an excellent job of seeking out the linebackers and gets down field in a hurry, taking good angles to neutralize…Has the speed to cut, wall off and force the chase path by the defender…Has good leg drive and anchor to hold off the pass rusher and even when he over-sets, he recovers quickly…Has better slide and lateral agility moving to the outside than redirecting inside, but can handle quickness when he moves his feet to mirror.
Negatives: More of a finesse type who likes to use his body to lean and push the defender, lacking the upper body strength to punch and shock with his hands…Has good speed, but won't explode into the opponent, preferring to reach and grab…Needs to improve his lower body strength and must get more aggressive in his handling of the bull rusher (can be pushed back into the pocket)…Better pass protector than run blocker, as he is slow to recover bringing his feet when redirecting inside…Gets too narrow in his base at times and needs to be more consistent in his attempts to gain leverage…Gets good hand placement, but you would hope he would shoot his hands with more pop on contact…Good at the reach and scoop, but must work harder to gain advantage in attempts to seal off…Must also stay on his blocks longer (gets off too quick, as he tries to locate other people to hit)…Might be a better fit at guard earlier in his career to cover up upper body strength issues (especially vs. the bull rush).
Compares To: ADAM MEADOWS-Denver…In his prime with the Colts, Meadows was an athletic mover and good finesse blocker. Free possesses the same quickness, reach and second level blocking ability. Some compare him to former NIU blocker Ryan Diem, but he is a much better athlete with quicker feet. Free needs to improve his hand punch and bulk up if he wants to play left tackle at the next level. With his quickness and lateral agility, he might have better success as a pulling guard.
Free started all 49 games of his career at NIU and earned his second consecutive first-team All-Mid American Conference selection in 2006. One of four Huskie captains, he was also a semi-finalist for the Draddy Award.
Earned first-team All-Mid American Conference and Academic All-MAC honors…Semi-finalist for the Draddy Award (honors combined academic success, football performance, and exemplary community service)…Member of the Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award Watch Lists…Earned CBSSportsLine.com "Halfway All American" accolades…Received a 91% grade for blocking consistency during the regular season (finished with an 89.2% overall mark), as he registered 61 knockdowns and ten intimidation blocks…Helped the offense average 363.2 yards per game…Bothered in fall camp by a groin strain and then suffered a stress fracture in his right foot in the season opener vs. Ohio State…The injury went undetected for two weeks, and he was forced to wear a boot on his foot to help the injury heal for close to one month, limiting his practice time.
First-team All-Mid American Conference selection…Started all year at left tackle, grading 91% for blocking consistency…Posted 49 knockdowns and thirteen intimidation blocks, as he anchored an offensive line that blocked for nation's 16th-ranked rushing attack (206.7 ypg)…The offense averaged 441.1 yards per game)…Nominated for MAC All-Academic and CoSIDA District V All-Academic honors, with 3.24 grade point average in Industrial Technology.
Earned Sophomore All-American third-team honors from College Sports Report…Second-team All-Mid American Conference choice by the league's coaches…Started all twelve games at left tackle, grading 91% for blocking consistency, as the team averaged 438.8 yards per game in total offense…Participated in 878 plays, registering 67 knockdowns and 17 intimidation blocks…Earned "plus" grades on 654 of 806 offensive line plays…Earned a season-high 99 snaps (92 on offense) vs. Eastern Michigan…Added one tackle vs. Maryland.
Freshman All-American third-team choice by The Sporting News…Started all twelve games, seeing action at right tackle in the season opener vs. Maryland and then shifted to left tackle for the next nine contests before shifting to tight end for the final two…Finished third on the team with 40 knockdowns and graded 85% for blocking consistency…Saw action in 477 of his 595 plays at tackle, wearing jersey #67… Switched to jersey # 87 while playing tight end…Played a season-high 87 snaps vs. Western Michigan (10-18-03).
Redshirted as true freshman.
2006-Limited in August camp by a groin strain…Suffered a right foot stress fracture in the season opener vs. Ohio State, playing in two more games before the injury was detected (did not miss any playing time). Was forced to wear a protective boot to attend classes while the injury healed.
Campus: 5.09 in the 40-yard dash…355-pound bench press…Bench presses 225 pounds 18 times… 565-pound squat…29-inch vertical jump…34 ½-inch arm length…10 ½-inch hands…Right-handed…22/29 Wonderlic score.
Attended Lincoln (Manitowoc, Wisc.) High School, playing football for head coach John Dixon…Lettered three times in football and was an Honor Roll student…The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel rated Free the ninth-best prospect in the state…The team captain and Defensive Lineman of the Year added first-team All-Fox Valley Conference accolades on both offense and defense…First-team Herald Times Reporter All-Area and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel All-State choice…Led the team to a 7-3 record and a playoff berth, as the squad finished second in the league…Recorded 64 tackles, eight sacks, seven blocked kicks, six forced fumbles, five pass deflections and two fumble recoveries as a defensive tackle in 2002…Had six receptions for 141 yards and a touchdown as a tight end…As a junior, he added first-team All-FVC recognition.
Industrial Technology major, twice earning Academic All-Mid American Conference honors with a 3.24 grade point average…Born 1/16/84…Resides in Manitowoc, Wisconsin.
Draft Scout Player News
03/11/17 - T Doug Free of the Dallas Cowboys says he plans to retire. Free, 33, has been an ironman for the Cowboys, starting all 16 games in six of the last seven seasons. A fourth-round selection by Dallas in the 2007 draft, the Northern Illinois product appeared in all 16 games in the 2009 season, making seven starts.
Free sat out five games during the 2014 campaign -- the only ones he missed since moving into the starting lineup in 2010.
09/24/16 - RT Doug Free went through a full practice Friday after being limited in practice on Wednesday and Thursday. He could shift to LT if Pro Bowler Tyron Smith is unable to play Sunday due to back stiffness.
09/23/16 - RT Doug Free is on the injury report with a quadriceps injury as Dallas prepares for Sunday's game against the Chicago Bears.
06/16/15 - T Doug Free remains sidelined after undergoing offseason foot surgery. He should be ready for the start of training camp after missing all of OTAs and minicamp.
"I've done the mental preparation the best I can and also the physical stuff, what I can do, I've been keeping up with," Free said. "Just planning on getting into training camp a little fresher maybe than some other people and working extra hard."
03/07/15 - RT Doug Free, scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent March 10, re-signed with the Cowboys Saturday (March 7). Free signed a three-year contract worth a reported $15 million with $6 million guaranteed.
The agreement, reached three days before the start of free agency, means all five of Dallas' starting offensive linemen will be back with the team in 2015.
Free, 31, has been a full-time starter since 2010. He started at left tackle at 2010 and 2011 before moving to right tackle in 2012. He was limited to 11 games last season due to a left ankle injury, which required offseason surgery.