It surely is never dull around here. It happens nearly ever spring. The Dallas Cowboys have targeted and acquired the apple of their eyes by a move that is somewhere between courageous and reckless when they grabbed the best defensive player in the draft in a trade that cost them picks #14 and #45 to ascend to #6 and pick LSU corner Morris Claiborne.
Claiborne is an exceptional talent; a dazzling combination of tools and big play performances that had every team in the NFL placing him high on their respective boards. He has the upside that projects to a true #1 cornerback who can lock down his man and a large part of his side of the field. When he gets the ball in his hands - which happens pretty often considering he is a defensive player - he is often on his way to a giant, game-changing play that results in points. And, it appears the Cowboys were able to get him from St Louis for below market value. The trade up to #6 would normally have cost a team at #14 their 2nd and 4th rounder as well, but the Rams were motivated sellers, who just wanted to get out of a position that high so that they could pick up an additional Top 50 pick.
And why would that be? Because the Rams realized they had more holes than they could plug with Claiborne and the rest of their haul. They knew they were not one player away.
Kind of makes you wonder why the franchise on the other end of the phone didn't feel the same way about their situation.
I want to be clear here when analyzing the move. The player is phenomenal, and despite having some flaws, he seems to have all of the talent to be a All-Pro caliber performer for a long time. There is no question that he should be one of the Cowboys Top 10 players on their roster already, with a chance to be much higher very soon.
I am not here to suggest I didn't see some things on his LSU tape that bother me; he doesn't tackle nearly as well as I had hoped in space, for instance. But, overall, he is easily the most complete corner in this draft and has a rare combination of size and speed that is just unfair. I would say the Cowboys have addressed their corner position as well as any team possibly could. It is not crazy to wonder, with the trade last night and the signing of Brandon Carr, if the Cowboys now have the best cornerback group in football.
I really don't know that this was a smart play from the Cowboys. In fact, if I had to give an analogy on my feelings, it might be to compare it to that time in your life when you are just out of college. You are trying to make it in the real world with a real job, your own place to live, and maybe even starting a family. Your college buddies are now in a similar spot, also just getting rolling in the real world and still not a whole lot of money in the bank. The "paper plates and lawn chairs" lifestyle is still in play, and then one of your buddies rolls up with a brand-new black Mercedes Benz. This despite the fact that he is still living in an apartment where he cannot comfortably pay his bills.
Now, there is nothing wrong with his car. In fact, it is the nicest car that anyone has in your circle of friends. It is a phenomenal car that will turn heads and dazzle dates. But, as he takes you in a spin in this awesome new vehicle, all you can think about is that there is no way he can afford this when his student loan is due, his credit cards are stacking up, and he has no money to retrieve from his ATM machine. It is a great car, but is it a great decision for the buyer?
The Cowboys were 8-8 last season. When they entered week 17 with a chance to win their division with a win at New York, they were destroyed and blown out of the stadium by the eventual champion, New York Giants. You could easily watch the game and the utter domination of the Giants front against the Cowboys OL and say that this matchup was not close. Or, like Jerry Jones, you could spend the next month watching the Giants win playoff game after playoff game against quality opposition and tell yourself that this could have been the Dallas Cowboys. You might say that the Cowboys cratered in December again and finished the year 1-4, but he might say that if Miles Austin catches a pass where he is wide open against the Giants in Week 14, the Cowboys win the NFC East and the Giants don't even go to the playoffs.
And neither of you would be completely wrong.
After the week 17 demolition in New York, I spent 2,000 words summarizing what I perceived to be the state of affairs with this franchise. Here was a small portion of what I thought then and still think today:
This team fails in December for one primary and simple reason: The roster doesn't contain the quality personnel that is required to sustain the assaults of a 16-game campaign in the NFL.
Think about it: When does the team fail? December. In a 4-month season, which month would best reveal your depth and quality down the roster that can compensate for fatigue and injuries? December. The truth is that the Cowboys have enough talent on the top of their roster to compete with some of the best teams in the league. Romo, Ware, Witten, Austin, Ratliff are a very solid "Top 5". Bryant, Lee, Murray, Smith, and Jenkins are a reasonable 6-10 on a roster. But, then the drop-off begins on the roster. And if the season was just 8-10 games long, they would likely be able to hang in there. Any Cowboys historian will confirm that the team certainly gets to Thanksgiving in great shape nearly every season. So, what changes? Is it really that turning the calendar to the month of December is what makes a magical spell fall over Romo and the team where they can no longer compete?
Good teams in the NFL have quality from 1-10, but also from 11-53, too. When fatigue strikes Jay Ratliff, they have a player behind him who can bridge the gap. If Ware is being double-teamed, someone else can rise up. When the line is under siege, a solid veteran can do a reasonable job and protect his QB. The good teams have enough quality on their roster that they can construct a solid team effort for the regular season. Sure, they count on their stars to perform, but beyond that, there are starters and reserves that never find a magazine cover that do their job admirably.
And here is why this trade for Claiborne gives me great pause. This franchise that lacks any quality depth down its roster - so much so that I can still list for you at least 5 starters who should not be starting - just traded 2 more picks away to address a spot that might have been ok for the time being. Did they upgrade? Yes. But, in doing so, like the 24 year old who bought his $75,000 car, we might not be able to pay all of the bills that are due at the end of the month.
Now, with picks further down the draft where the Cowboys have had a real issue in finding quality players, the team must figure out how to upgrade their defensive line, offensive line, and fill real needs at safety, wide receiver, and tight end. But, because of past mistakes, they do not have enough picks left or cap room available to fix these spots. And what happens when you run out of resources? Then you start Phil Costa at center, Bill Nagy at guard, re-sign Marcus Spears, grab Kenyon Coleman, and do the best you can (which puts you at 8-8 all over again).
An emailer last night was bemoaning the trade, talking about this treadmill that the personnel department cannot get off of. They trade for Morris Claiborne in 2012 to replace a disappointing Mike Jenkins from 2008. They draft DeMarco Murray (2011) because Felix Jones (2008) was not what you hoped. They grab Dez Bryant (2010) because the Roy Williams trade (2008) was a disaster. They target Sean Lee (2010) because Bobby Carpenter (2006) was nowhere near the player they thought. And on and on. They draft a player to cover up a prior mistake. And when that happens, you never can make progress and improve. You are running just to stand still.
I happen to think getting the #6 pick for #14 and #45 is a shrewd decision. Claiborne fits a premium player at a premium position in a huge way. It is the type of move a team would pull off when they are "1 special player away". But, if you needed #14 and #45 to both start 16 games this year for you at key spots on the field, then perhaps you couldn't afford to buy that corner (or Mercedes) that you always wanted. Claiborne will be a tremendous player for years to come, but the roster is still razor thin at many spots. He will not help you block the Giants pass rush, and come the cold winds of December and the attrition that hits this team after Thanksgiving, we might see that like the Rams, Dallas should have been thinking about a "strength in numbers" philosophy to fill their many holes.
The Cowboys consistently have starters on the field that would be reserves elsewhere. They have reserves who are often cut and never find another NFL job. They consistently neglect the bottom half of their roster, partly because they throw picks around to move up and get players. Just charge this Dez trade to the company credit card. The team moved up to get Anthony Spencer, Mike Jenkins, Dez Bryant, and Sean Lee. In doing so, they paid the price with picks who could and should be depth and developmental players who are ready to start. Instead, they find themselves starting undrafted free agents who have no business being on the field at this stage of their career. It sounds like the equivalent of having a sweet Benz parked outside an 800-foot apartment.
But, asking Jerry to change his ways and his philosophy is asking a tiger to change from stripes to spots. He has always believed in the big splash and the top players on the field. The other spots will figure themselves out as we go. Or they won't. And we will repeat this process again and again.
I love the player, Morris Claiborne. I am just not sure that this move pushes the team any closer to the Super Bowl.