The best player on the Cowboys defensive line right now is tackle Terrell McClain. Their best cornerback is Morris Claiborne.
A year ago, or even just a few months ago, many would have guessed that neither would be on the 2016 roster. Their sudden turn from disappointments to defensive standouts is a credit to the patience and loyalty that the Cowboys show their players.
Dallas took a chance on McClain in 2014 after he’d flamed out with three different teams in four seasons. Injuries kept McClain from being a factor that year and cost him all but two games in 2015.
Dallas could’ve released McClain this year for $1 million in cap space and minimal dead money. After they signed Cedric Thornton in free agency, it didn’t seem that McClain would be anything more than a bench option. Given his health problems, Dallas would’ve been justified in looking for more reliable depth.
Finally healthy for the first time as a Cowboy, Terrell McClain is showing the talent that made him the 65th overall pick in 2011 (the first pick of the third round). He was taken higher in his draft than any of the Cowboys’ other defensive tackles, and that is showing in his current play.
Last Sunday was a great example of what McClain is bringing to the Cowboys defense. He led the team with 1.5 sacks and three QB hits. While thought of more as a power player, McClain has shown he can move and be disruptive as well. He was the most impactful defensive linemen from either team, far out-showing Geno Atkins from the Bengals.
Turning 29 and becoming a free agent next summer, McClain may not be able to secure a large contract regardless of what he does now. Still, the veteran is clearly giving it his best effort. Even if his next deal is with another team, Dallas is reaping benefits now.
Not only has Claiborne emerged as the Cowboys’ best corner, but he is getting league-wide recognition as a standout performer in 2016. It is, by leaps and bounds, the peak of his career thus far.
Dallas chose not to use the team option they had on Claiborne this season. It would’ve paid him about $11 million in 2016; a hefty price for a player with such a problematic career.
Still, the Cowboys clearly hadn’t lost faith in Claiborne. Despite having an aging Brandon Carr and Orlando Scandrick coming off a major knee injury, Dallas didn’t spend big in free agency or use a high draft pick at cornerback. They agreed to a one-year, $3 million deal with Claiborne to give him one last chance as a Cowboy.
Remember, Dallas faced a tough decision with their fourth overall pick of the NFL Draft. They could’ve selected Jalen Ramsey, who many felt was the best defensive back prospect in several years, instead of running back Ezekiel Elliott. Even with Claiborne signed to his “prove it” contract, taking Ramsey would’ve made plenty of sense for the present and future.
Nobody is lamenting the Cowboys’ choice to take Elliott now, and a huge part of that is the way Claiborne has delivered. If his strong play continues, we could be looking at a long-term extension sometime in the next few months.
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These examples of the team being rewarded for its loyalty to players are very relevant as discussion swirls around Tony Romo. Every situation is different, but will having trust validated by other veterans hold any sway on the Cowboys’ handling of the quarterback position?
Regardless of who is under center, Romo or Dak Prescott will benefit from the play of Terrell McClain, Morris Claiborne, and the improving defense that they are leading. Not every franchise would have stuck with these guys after the difficulties they’ve faced, especially the lack of production the team has gotten from them.
Jerry Jones has taken plenty of criticism through the years of being too loyal to his players. There’s no denying that it’s gotten him into trouble before, but there are times that it ends up benefiting the team.
Make no mistake; Jones’ treatment of his players is a marketing and negotiating strength when free agents come to town. They see when his former players ask him, and not their lauded head coach, to introduce them in Hall of Fame ceremonies. They see when these former Cowboys stay close to the organization long after their careers have ended. It’s why a guy like Claiborne wasn’t desperate for new surroundings and wanted to make it work in Dallas.
Claiborne, along with Terrell McClain, are finally making it work as Cowboys. They are at the forefront of a defense which, although not a league-leading group, is exceeding expectations and maximizing its talent.
And they’re only here because the Cowboys gave them one more chance.