Morris Claiborne is a fabulous player, and easily the best CB in the draft. Pair him with Brandon Carr, along with Orlando Scandrick in the slot, and the Cowboys potentially have themselves a great trio of corners.
This is not about Morris Claiborne. I love the player; I don’t love the decision to use their first two picks to acquire him.
About a month ago, Jason Garrett and Jerry Jones talked about their free agent acquisitions, and they both thought they had done a good job filling all of their needs:
Jones said the Cowboys did so well in free agency they will be open to pretty much anything in the draft, including selecting a premier player at 14 or trading out of the pick.
“Because of how well we did in free agency, we will be able to draft or trade,” Jones said. “In other words, we could easily have a situation that’s in our best interest but if you just had to have that safety or that offensive lineman, you might not have been able to make a trade you wanted to make and go down. Or possibly go up. So my point is, free agency helped us normally, purely look at how we can best improve the personnel on this team through the draft, whether it be trading or just picking the player. Not a luxury, but picking the player.”
And because the team signed two guards who they like and believe can start, Jones said the Cowboys are inclined not to pick up a guard in the first round and will likely focus on defense with a cornerback, safety, linebacker or defensive lineman.
Well, they got their “best player” in the draft. In fact, they got the 2nd highest rated player on their board, behind Andrew Luck. But I’m not so sure Garrett and Jones filled all their needs in free agency, as they suggested above.
Let’s take a look at some of the other need positions on this team:
1) OFFENSIVE LINE: A TIMELINE
With an aging OL in place, the Cowboys had a total of 18 draft picks in 2008 and 2009. With those 18 picks, they selected one offensive lineman, Robert Brewster. Brewster is no longer with the team.
In 2010, the Cowboys drafted one offensive lineman, Sam Young, in the 6th round. Young, like Brewster, is no longer with the team. They headed into the 2010 season with the oldest offensive line in the NFL. Leonard Davis celebrated his 32nd birthday just before the start of the season, with Marc Colombo and Kyle Kosier celebrating their 32nd birthdays shortly thereafter. Andre Gurode was 31. The one player that was still relatively young was the 26 year old Doug Free, who was taking over at LT for the departed Flozell Adams, who was 35.
The Cowboys were the overwhelming favorites to win the NFC East that season, but in what should have been a fairly predictable outcome, the offensive line went into a sharp decline and the the offense sputtered. It didn’t help that the defense was surprisingly bad. They finished that season 6-10.
The following offseason, Jerry Jones made the obvious decision to cut bait with Colombo, Davis and Gurode, three players that were playing poorly and making far too much money. The Cowboys were, in a way, forced into “going young” along their OL. For the first time in 20+ years as the Cowboys’ GM, Jones spent a first round pick on an offensive lineman, scoring the extremely talented Tyron Smith out of USC. They would take a couple more offensive linemen in the 4th and 7th rounds, grabbing David Arkin and Bill Nagy, respectively. They also locked up Free to a long term deal, paying him $32 million over 4 years. It appeared that after years of ignoring the OL, it was finally becoming a priority, albeit way too late.
To begin the season, the Cowboys started two rookies: Nagy at LG, and Tyron Smith at RT. They also plugged in 2nd year player Phil Costa at center. Kosier was moved from LG over to the right side to be sort of an “offensive tackle whisperer” for Smith. In one offseason, they went from the oldest offensive line in the league to one of the youngest.
With so many new and unproven players inserted into the lineup, the Cowboys’ offensive line once again sputtered all season, this time even more predictably than in 2010. Smith had a great rookie year, but the two other new pieces, Costa and Nagy, both had brutal seasons. Costa’s poor play lasted 16 games, while Nagy’s bad season was cut short in Week 6, when he was lost for the season with a broken ankle. Kosier’s decline and health issues continued. Free, meanwhile, was a major disappointment, having a surprisingly bad season. The Cowboys were learning that turning over a full offensive line in a short amount of time isn’t exactly easy. They hit with one player, missed with two, and were heading into the 2012 once again needing to scramble to find answers.
This year in free agency, the Cowboys signed OG Mackenzy Bernadeau, a player that had a couple bad seasons in 2009 and 2010 in Carolina, who then lost his job in 2011. Bernadeau’s agent said the Cowboys brought him in to be a starting guard, and while agents tend to say positive things about their clients, the size of the contract 4 years, $11 million) would indicate that he’s not full of it. The Cowboys then went out and signed 30 year old Nate Livings, a player that Bengals fans by and large were more than happy to see leave. The cost for Livings was 5 years, $19 million. With Livings and Bernadeau in place, the team felt comfortable cutting Kosier. On the outside, the plan is to flip-flop Smith and Free, with Smith moving from RT to LT, and vice versa. Costa remains penciled in at center, amazingly. In a nutshell, 2 fresh, new question marks at both guard spots, and a guy we already know can’t play at C.
All 3 interior OL spots could stand to be upgraded, in my opinion, and yet, the OL continues to be put on the back burner.
2) OUTSIDE LINEBACKER: WHAT ABOUT REPLACING SPENCER?
When the Cowboys made the questionable decision to place the franchise tag on Anthony Spencer, they pretty much immediately made him a lame duck in Dallas. They were able to delay addressing the LOLB spot in the Dallas D for a year, enabling them to fill some other holes in the draft instead. Or at least that was the argument I heard at the time. If Spencer doesn’t perform a high level in 2012, then you let him walk. However, even if he does have a good season in 2012, you can tag him again, but it’ll cost you 120% of his salary from the previous season, or $10,560,000. Now you’re opening up a whole new can of worms. Do you pay a guy $10.56 million (or perhaps even a long term mega-deal) to a player with one good full season? Probably not. So again, either way, he’s probably a goner in 2013.
After tagging Spencer, the Cowboys noted that they didn’t believe they had an adequate replacement for Spencer already on the roster. Obviously, this is a spot that could have used some attention.
3) DEFENSIVE END: ROLE PLAYERS AND TOMATO CANS
Jason Hatcher and Sean Lissemore are nice role players. The rest of the Dallas DEs are tomato cans. Nothing more to add here.
4) SAFETY: FROM ONE FORMER ROB RYAN STIFF TO ANOTHER
The Cowboys signed Abram Elam last offseason. He was the embodiment of a “JAG” in 2011, a guy that isn’t really going to make any plays, and otherwise play average football. Brodney Pool is more of the same:
Brodney Pool wanted to play for the Dallas Cowboys last year. Some inside the building wanted him, too, but the club ended up with Abram Elam instead.
A year later, the Cowboys got Pool.
But did they get better?
Well, they got younger.
Elam is 31 in October. Pool is 28 in May.
But the players are similar.
This is a thumbnail sketch from an AFC personnel guy on Pool: offers some flexibility at strong and free safety, steady but doesn’t make many plays on the ball, situational player.
Sounds like Elam, doesn’t it?
Elam had 79 tackles, four tackles for loss, one forced fumble and a fumble recovery, according to the Cowboys’ coaches’ breakdown. For the Jets last year, Pool started six games, played in 14 and had 37 tackles, a half sack, four quarterback hurries, an interception, three pass breakups and a fumble recovery.
Again, a position that could have received serious attention.
CORNER WAS A NEED TOO, BUT HOW MUCH OF ONE, REALLY?
When the Cowboys signed Brandon Carr, they made a monumental upgrade over Terence Newman. Carr-Jenkins-Scandrick? Good, not great. Jenkins really struggled in 2010 both with toughness issues, and just overall poor play. His 2011 season was much better, especially since he played a portion of the season with one arm. The issue was that Jenkins was set to become a free agent heading into 2013, so it would make some sense to pick a CB as a potential replacement. The addition of Claiborne will likely end Jenkins’ run in Dallas much sooner now.
SAME OL’ JERRY
By my count, I identified 8 positions above that have more of a need to upgrade than CB. They are, to recap… All 3 interior OL spots, OLB, S, and both DE spots. When you have that many positions that you can stand to upgrade, there’s an excellent chance that whenever you’re on the clock, the best player available on your board will also likely be a fit at one of those 8 bigger need positions.
So why use your first and second round picks on a CB? Well, that can be answered with another question. And that is:
“What are the Cowboys, exactly?”
They’re a team with no shortage of star power (or at least perceived star power) at the top: Ware, Romo, Witten, Austin, Ratliff, Smith, Lee and if you want to throw in Bryant and Carr too, then OK, I suppose I’ll allow it.
Beyond the stars, there’s mediocrity up and down the starting lineup and typically no depth to speak of whatsoever. This has not been a winning formula, and probably never will be.
The Cowboys’ decision to trade up and utilize their top 2 picks on one player (albeit potentially a great one), especially at a position that didn’t need as much help as other areas, reflects that same pattern.
Old habits die hard and owner/GMs can’t be fired.