Doug Free says he is happy.

For a player who says little to begin with, who had his pay cut in half, who has no promises about his starting job at right tackle, that’s actually saying a lot.

“I’m happy, yeah,” he told reporters last week at Valley Ranch. “Got to be. Got to stay positive and keep working hard.”

That’s at least what the Cowboys hope they get for their $3.5 million this year, half the amount they paid to Free last year in a season in which he appeared to be the weak link in what was already a struggling offensive line.

Free’s problems in moving back to the right side, and in incorporating the new techniques of offensive line coach Bill Callahan, made the Cowboys rethink their commitment to the veteran tackle as he entered a year that would pay him $7 million. They basically told him: Restructure and take less or we will release you come June 1.

The tackle market didn’t shake out in Free’s favor, and he and the team agreed to a new two-year deal.

“You never know exactly what’s going to happen until it happens, so it was kind of a waiting game and a little bit of this and a little bit of that,” Free said. “Just had to be strong, keep working hard, improve myself, no matter what happened.

“I think both sides got what they wanted out of it. I’m just going to do my best and work hard.”

Free said he’s past the business part of the off-season.

“I don’t want to look at the business part or the money part,” he said. “I just like playing football, and that’s what I like to do.”

If it’s time to play football, it’s time to help Free play it better. Callahan said he and Free have spent much more time this year breaking down the pass rushers Free has seen and will see, improving the angles he takes in pass protection and in focusing better on every play.

“I think he’s smarter about his angles. He’s more aware of his angles and his footwork,” Callahan said. “We’ve studied a great deal of rushers on film and what they’ve done and the type of moves they’ve given to him and that he’s seen. So we’ve done a considerable study of all the repertoire of things that have broken down his game. We’ve also shown him some of the highlights and some of the positives that he’s done, too, because he’s done a lot of great things.”

Not many of those great things happened last year. Free had a team- and career-high 13 penalties — eight false starts and five holds, both also career highs, and seven sacks allowed (second most in his career).

Over the final four games, the Cowboys made Free accountable by giving backup Jermey Parnell some of his snaps.

It worked. While Free and Parnell alternated series in the Cincinnati game, Free’s performance improved enough that he earned himself the majority of the snaps after that.

“I think any time you get challenged by something one way or another, you’re either going to get stronger and play better or get weaker and play worse,” Free said. “I think last year, the competition definitely improved my game and kind of helped me focus.”