Letters to Mr. Jones No. 7: Grade of the "Morris Claiborne Draft"

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Letters to Mr. Jones No. 7: Grade of the
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Dear Mr. Jones,

The draft is over and it is time for the early grade.

As I stated in the previous letters I think this was the most important off-season of at least the last decade due to the age of Tony Romo

His window to win a Superbowl is closing and it is debatable whether you will choose to stick around to rebuild this team again, so these may also be your last few chances to win a Superbowl without Jimmy Johnson's fingerprints.

This offseason may define both Romo and your legacies.

 

Team Needs

Lets look back at the pre-draft team needs.

Primary Needs (7-8 spots)

Starting G (possibly two, at least one being very good), a 4-3 DT/ 3-4 DE who can rush the passer out of either set and has a closing burst, a starting center, a space eating NT (if the team stays in the 3-4 as a base set), a ball hawking FS who can cover and a HB who can get short yardage and carry the load for a few weeks if needed.

Secondary Needs (2 spots)

A backup FB who can block and, arguably, a pass rushing OLB.

Tertiary Needs

Young, developing depth everywhere especially at CB, OL and QB.

 

The Basic Numbers

There are 32 NFL teams with 22 starters per team or 704 starters. If you ignore free agents like Tony Romo and very charitably say that the average starter hangs around mostly starting for seven years, you end up with about a 100 starters in each draft. Now if you say 30 percent of those are below-average starters, you end up with 70 guys you want each draft.

Now you may put that number a little higher if you believe that some players land in bad spots or if you do the math differently, but the basic premise is what you should consider.

To me, the math means good drafting begins with determining who are the 70 average to above average starters in each draft prior to the draft. You should be hitting on a starter with your first and second picks and trying to beat the odds and land a third starter with your third pick, before you start gambling on appealing prospects.

That has not been the case in Dallas, where often the team has looked at projects in their first three rounds and as such has had unspectacular drafts despite, by all accounts, having a very competent scouting department.

You traded up at a great price

The big concern entering the draft was that you absolutely could not afford to miss in the first round.

By all indications, you didn't. All the scouts love Morris Claiborne. 

The cost to move up from No. 14 to No. 6 is usually the 40th pick. You were able to get the Rams to agree to accept the 45th pick should certain conditions arise and get them to not back out on the deal.

Now there are two ways to look at this. If you had stayed, it looked like David DeCastro would have fallen to you (he ultimately fell all the way to 20) and he was considered one of the six or so blue chip players in the draft—at an area of major need.

Some would argue that it made no sense to trade away your second pick to land a cornerback at a position where you just signed a guy for $10 million a year and have a former Pro Bowler at the other spot (not to mention the league's highest paid third corner).

The counter argument comes from local reporter Mickey Spagnola who states that you were aiming to take DT Michael Brockers of LSU at No. 14 and ILB Bobby Wagner of Utah State at No. 45.

Brockers probably would have been a part-time player in his first few seasons here in Dallas, as he is not a NFL-caliber pass-rusher and is not big enough to be a 3-4 NT. I think the likely net would have been a somewhat effective player at DT in the four-man set Dallas uses on passing downs.

Likewise, with no disrespect to Wagner, the Penn State duo of Dan Connor and Sean Lee inside would be tough for him to unseat any time soon.

There appears to be little question that Claiborne, if healthy, will be Dallas's No. 1 CB. He will play almost every down. He will likely be a near shutdown CB who makes former Pro Bowl CB Mike Jenkins potentially the No. 3 CB and Orlando Scandrick the No. 4. Fans should not underestimate the value of that.

That is a huge impact add.

(Additionally, the idea that Dallas was looking at Brockers implies that they may not have had DeCastro rated as a blue chipper in this draft. With that being the thought, trading up to ensure there would be no whiff is exactly what a fan would hope the team would do at this point.)

You did not trade future picks for picks today

This is where I really have a problem with the draft. The draft after Claiborne was really a number of projects. I can understand that the trade helped create that, but you had seven to eight pronounced needs on this team and you really didn't conclusively fill any of them.

What happens if Mackenzy Bernadeau remains "the turnstile" as Carolina fans call him? What happens if Nate Livings is the weakest starter on the offensive line in Dallas as he was in Cincinnati? What if Phil Costa or Kevin Kowalski cannot become an everyday center? 

You've pinned your hopes on the offensive line on new OL coach Bill Callahan's ability to develop unproven players, but you are asking a lot of him.  Perhaps too much.

What happens if DeMarco Murray goes down again and teams tee off on Romo?

No doubt the Claiborne acquisition and the Jenkins non-trade dramatically impacts your other needs.  Now your first four CBs compare with the first four CBs on any other teams. That opens up a ton of flexibility on defense and should reduce the glaring nature of some of the need areas out there, but you are still very vulnerable offensively.

I think not acquiring a few more picks to draft linemen early could be a very costly mistake in terms of the coming season's chances of being a Super Bowl season.

I question whether you will regret not acquiring a pick to draft a guy like Utah State's RB Robert Turbin, who likely could handle picking up short yardage for a few weeks if push came to shove. Or the wisdom in not drafting a slider like Washington's hard running Chris Polk in the 6th round, or for that matter, not signing him outright after the draft.

You got compliant patting yourself and your sons on the back after the Claiborne trade.

With that trade in mind, the number of holes on this roster still and the relatively short remaining Super Bowl window, it was necessary to trade 2013 picks to get another first-round pick this year.

(There was some talk during the draft of you moving Mike Jenkins for an early pick. Certainly, if no one was offering a first-round pick you made the right call to hang on to him.)

Did you avoid scheme dependent players?

Well, Claiborne at least has the skill set to excel in any scheme, even though, in theory, he will fit the Ryan scheme especially well. Some of the others, not so much, but they were mostly picks in the area of the draft where gambling on players who aren't ready is the name of the game.

How many guys are ready to play?

Bryan Broaddus, a former Cowboys scout, has a series of profiles on each player. These are my thoughts on reading his thumbnails and those of others.

1) CB Morris Claiborne (LSU)

Bottom line: Ready to start. He's a near shutdown CB. Dallas's scheme is designed to fit a CB with Claiborne's abilities. Probably will be a fairly smooth transition into the No. 1 CB job in Dallas.

3) DE Tyrone Crawford (Boise State)

Bottom line: Probably not ready to start. "The prototypical 5-technique in the 3-4 defense"? Not likely. The analysis by Drew at Huddlereport.com sounds far, far more likely. The guy is a very, very well built 275 lbs. To me, he sounds like another 4-3 NFL SDE prospect who Dallas is going to try to make into a 3-4 DE.

Look for him to bulk up and lose his pass rushing burst like so many other Cowboys picks over the years. I actually like the player, I am more venting about the scheme. Today he is an underdeveloped player who was used all over the field for various purposes at Boise State. That is probably what appealed to Dallas.

My personal hope is that Crawford just focuses on his pass-rush technique rather than adding size, and helps force a shift to the 4-3 as a base set. Since Anthony Spencer is inconsistent as a pass rusher in the four-man front Dallas uses on passing downs, and there are no other defensive linemen with a closing burst, opportunities will arise if Crawford simply hones his pass-rushing skills.

If I were his agent, that would be my advice to him. DEs in a 4-3 who can rush the passer get paid and have longer careers as they field fewer double teams. This kid might be another "two years in Dallas and then greater success elsewhere" guy. He is a one year FBS starter from Canada—not exactly a low-risk prospect.

3) 3-4 OLB Kyle Wilber (Wake Forest)

Bottom line: Not ready to start. He sounds like a reach to me. This would have been the spot to draft Robert Turbin as your DeMarco Murray insurance. Turbin likely would have been a much better value than a minor (and debatable) upgrade over Victor Butler as a backup OLB.

An overaged prospect like Baylor Center Phillip Blake could have made sense here. Really, in the third round you should still be targeting players who will definitely contribute, even if they may not be starters. Wilber appears to have been drafted as a developmental project.

You probably hope that Wilber might eventually replace OLB Anthony Spencer after a few years in an NFL strength program. Wilber sounds like he has the other skills needed at OLB that the Cowboys appear to feel pass-rush specialist Butler lacks (preventing Butler from getting extended playing time). 

While there is always a shot at getting lucky, given the reviews and Wilber's draft slot, I think it is entirely likely that his NFL career could consist solely of a couple years as a roster spot holder in Dallas.

4) S Matt Johnson (Eastern Washington-FCS)

Bottom line: Probably not ready to start (but not a given). I like this pick, even though most scouts see it as a reach. This appears a good value for two reasons. FCS players are often underrated. Additionally this is another one of your good "late career injury" value picks.

If he had been healthy his senior year, given his production, he might have been a much more respected prospect. A four-year starter, Johnson had 17 INTs and likely would have had more if he didn't suffer a bicep injury with four games to go. He is sound against the run, reads the play and the QB well, and is a ball hawk. Johnson was a big part of a national title team in his junior year.

He sounds like just what you hope to get from a No. 3 safety. Worst-case scenario he isn't any better than our current backups but, unlike them, can generate turnovers.

5) WR Danny Coale (Virginia Tech)

Bottom line: Probably not ready to start. I like this pick a lot. He was a four-year starter in college. Fans should check out Coale's average per catch in his sophomore and junior seasons when he was the team's big-play threat.  It's hopeful.  Asepr Jason Garrett, Coale runs in the 4.3's.

WRs with speed who turn it into 20 YPC seasons in college tend to be a good gamble in the pros. Broaddus says Virginia Tech's QB screwed Coale's stats in his senior year by consistently missing the guy. 

If his stats were the more normal progression from previous seasons that you usually see, what would this guys be? A third rounder? Coale killed at the combine, showing he has some polish. I think he has a real shot to challenge at the third WR slot this year.

6) TE James Hanna (Oklahoma)

Bottom line: Not ready to start. I hate this pick based on the kind of prospect this kid is. A receiving threat at TE who has stone hands when he takes a hit? Really? That is what Dallas needs? This would have been a smart slot to take Chris Polk.

Hanna has been talked about as Martellus Bennett's replacement, but the statement sounds far too literal. This is exactly the type of player Dallas should avoid on draft day. The Cowboys end up holding far too many non-producing projects eating roster spots.

It isn't worth burning eight roster spots on the non-productive for the one that actually makes it. Dallas would be smart to throw this kid on the practice squad and go with the solid John Phillips as the No. 2 TE.

7) 3-4 ILB/FB Caleb McSurdy (Montana-FCS)

Bottom line: Not ready to start. I like this pick and I am not alone there. NFL Network analyst Mike Lombardi calls this pick the 12th best value outside of the first round in this draft. Again FCS guys are often a little underrated.

I would be fairly content getting a backup ILB prospect with the kinds of reviews this kid got in the fourth round. He sounds like he can play a little. You got him in the seventh. Add in that he looks like a good special teams prospect and he can be an emergency FB, and this looks like an exceptional value.

I think there is a great shot that given Dallas' needs that this kid makes the practice squad or the roster this year and that he could have a five-year career or better.

The Bottom Line

You really only added one definite starter in Claiborne, but, in a lot of ways, his impact on the team could cover you in a lot of your other need areas on defense.

His addition allows for regular three and four CB sets that can blanket most NFL receiving corps. 

That extra coverage time will make guys like Anthony Spencer, Marcus Spears and Jason Hatcher be more effective pass-rushers, mitigating the need for another pass-rushing down lineman. Add in Crawford who has a sufficient burst to finish a pass rush but little polish, and I think you can squint and say that need is mostly filled.

Likewise, with the ability to throw three very good CBs on the field at any time, the need for safety help (specifically a safety who can cover) is lessened. Adding a true ball hawk like Johnson to the safety mix helps.

You absolutely helped the defense.

The Coale pick could be productive too, but I don't consider that much of a need with some of the young guys you are high on and the availability of Felix Jones to help out in the passing game.

The Claiborn trade is an A+ move, but your picks in the third and sixth rounds look fairly debatable. You had multiple opportunities to add a chain-mover as insurance for a DeMarco Murray injury and didn't.  Also I think not trading next year's picks for a chance to add some of the top offensive linemen in this year's draft may come back to haunt you this season.

Tony Romo only has a few years left. You didn't do as much to help him survive next year as you could have.

Draft grade: B+

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