"Don't get me wrong, I would walk from here to New York to get that second pick back. But I would not walk if I had to give the player back." -Jerry Jones
As the first round of the 2012 draft came to a close late Thursday night and the Twitter buzz slowly wore off, Cowboys' nation celebrated a bold move that landed the best defensive prospect on the board. Dallas maneuvered their way out of the 14th overall pick and into the sixth by way of the St. Louis Rams. With that selection they claimed Morris Claiborne, cornerback out of LSU.
Claiborne promises elite speed and coverage to a defensive secondary that decomposed as the 2011 season wore on. He's a blanket with quick feet, a true cover-corner that can jam wide receivers at the line and possesses great ball skills. He was projected to be drafted in the top six. That became a reality as Roger Goodell announced his name and held up a Dallas Cowboys' Jersey.
The sacrifice was a second round pick, which Dallas gave up in order to have the opportunity to draft Claiborne. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall of the Dallas war room as that strategy came to fruition. I imagine it was all Jerry Jones pressuring his staff to "get this guy". Rob Ryan probably heard something about the caterers cleaning up and was suddenly alert, "hell yes get that guy!". Meanwhile, Jason Garrett, falling into the yes-man mentality that's expected of Jones' head coaches, slumped back into his chair thinking about his offensive line and quarterback, "yeah... we don't need to draft three guys in three rounds. That would be silly. Let's draft a cornerback".
Ultimately, it was a great move by the Cowboys. They recognized their failures of the previous season and stopped at nothing to address them. Claiborne doesn't pose the same kind of first-round risk that drafting a quarterback does (Washington Redskins). They're not expecting him to save the franchise. They're expecting him to develop and supplement a secondary that recently acquired Brandon Carr in free agency.
Carr is the $50 million answer to the burn-and-turn hurdle that was Terence Newman.
He has decent speed and size and served well as Kansas City's No. 2 cornerback. But therein lies the problem; while he's been a good match-up against No. 2 wide receivers, he's never been the shutdown reliability that anchors a good defense. On top of that, he is being paid close to what the Philadelphia Eagles paid Nnamdi Asomugha, a proven No. 1. Meanwhile, Lardarius Webb resigns with the Baltimore Ravens for $52 million. I wonder if the Cowboys even gave him any consideration.
Webb seems to be under the radar when it comes to elite defensive backs. He allowed zero touchdowns in 2011 and was tied with Darrelle Revis for third with 25 pass deflections. Sprinkle in 5 interceptions during the regular season (tied 8th), and three more in the post season, you have the best free agent value of all cornerbacks. Granted, he was a restricted free agent, which means the Cowboys knew that they wouldn't be able to lure him out of Baltimore. Or maybe they could have. It would have been nice to at least hear something out of Jones and company that Webb was their number one target, a risk that many quarterbacks have shied away from.
Regardless, anything that isn't Newman is an upgrade. But what about that second rounder that Dallas traded away? I took to Twitter to vent my frustrations stating that a secondary is only as good as its pass rush. My friend, Tom Pollin
, was quick to point out that Dallas ranked seventh in sacks with 42. It's hard to punch holes in that stat. For a few weeks, it certainly looked like Dallas was the kind of defense that wins championships, the kind you don't run on. And they proved it, in all the wrong ways. While DeMarcus Ware racked up 19.5 sacks and Anthony Spencer claimed another 6, the secondary allowed 244 yards per game (23rd). It seems whatever pass rush they were demonstrating was only to pleasure the stat books and that the secondary wasn't good enough to take advantage.
Spencer has been a perennial disappointment. Drafted in the first round of 2007, he was supposed to be the distraction that gave Ware room to find lanes to the quarterback. Instead, he's been an easy target for fans' frustrations as the Dallas defense catered quarterbacks to the end zone. As his contract neared expiration, the Cowboys were left with no choice but to franchise him. In a 2012 free agency that is chock-full of great players, there isn't a single outside linebacker good enough to replace Spencer and still meet payroll. That's the harsh reality of first round draft picks.
Which is where Claiborne comes in. The only knock on him has been his Wonderlic score. Allegedly, he scored a 4 out of 50, which is tied for the worst since the NFL started using I.Q. testing. I find it somewhat amusing that the same team that introduced the Wonderlic as a way of evaluating players (Tom Landry, Dallas Cowboys), is the same that drafted a player with an alleged learning disability. Claiborne said that he blew the test off because it wasn't about football. Whatever the case may be, Dallas fans shouldn't worry about how many feet a train will travel in three seconds if it travels 20 feet every 1/5th of a second (300), they should worry about how many pass deflections and interceptions their shiny new cornerback can muster in a pass-happy league.
That's the true test. In a division that boasts a two-time Super Bowl winner
, a two-time $100 million contract signer
, and a guy that's supposed to be the second coming
of Michael Vick, Claiborne has plenty of homework to do over the next few months. The rest of the defense is a work in progress. Bradie James is gone. Keith Brooking is old and not likely to return. In their place are hopefuls such as Bruce Carter and Dan Conner. The biggest burden falls on Sean Lee. Lee has ball-hawking potential, but in his case, the Cowboys aren't looking for potential, they're looking for results.
The results of a "good" pass rush last season was an 8-8 record and an embarrassing all-or-nothing showdown with the eventual Super Bowl Champions. That humiliation paved the way for the Cowboys to ignore draft value and jump on Claiborne. While they could have stocked defensive linemen to help out the front three or four, like Sean Lissemore, Jason Hatcher, Jay Ratliff, and Marcus Spears, they recognized their biggest need and the future of the NFL.
When Dan Marino's record for most passing yards in a single season, which stood for 27 years, was eclipsed by two quarterbacks in 2011 (Drew Brees, 5,476; Tom Brady, 5,235), and grazed by two others (Matthew Stafford, 5,038; Eli Manning, 4,933), it's a sign that the times have changed. There was a day that if you were going to sacrifice a second round pick just to move up eight spots in the first round, it meant that you were going to draft an all-pro running back. That is no longer the case. Forget the old adage about running the ball and stopping the run; today's game is all about passing the ball and stopping the pass. That's precisely the strategy the Cowboys have bought into.
While it's true that a secondary is only as good as its front seven, great cornerbacks and safeties create room for linebackers and linemen. Dallas is trying something different; they are loading up on defensive backs and pressuring the wide receivers. The residual effects are getting a great pass rush out of not-so-great pass rushers. Receivers can't break containment against great cover-corners, which means the quarterback has to hold the ball longer, or get rid of it quicker. Either way, the advantage goes to the defense. For a team that had 42 sacks last year, you have to love the moves they made this offseason.
In the grand scheme of things, losing a second round draft pick won't be the difference between 8-8 and 10-6. With the addition of Claiborne and Carr, the Cowboys once again look like contenders. Even in a day when quarterbacks mean everything, defense still wins championships.