Perhaps no individual Dallas Cowboys player has more riding on this 2016 playoff appearance than cornerback Morris Claiborne. With free agency on the horizon and an injury-plagued past, the Cowboys' most-talented CB could make a big impact on his future with how he performs during this postseason.
When Claiborne's rookie deal expired after 2015, Dallas was not ready to make any long-term commitment to their former first-round pick. Claiborne had just missed five of the team's final seven games; the story of his career thus far. Still believing in his talent, Dallas signed him to a one-year "prove yourself" contract.
You can understand the Cowboys' skepticism. After being taken with the sixth-overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Claiborne has missed 35 games during his career. That's 43% of the 82 games (including 2014 playoffs) that he could've played in. This doesn't even include games that he left to due to injury, or games where his performance was limited because of health issues.
Claiborne started off this critical last-chance season as well as anyone could've hoped. He was the best cornerback on the field and had got people excited very quickly. Just check out these two articles that were written after the Cowboys first two games:
That enthusiasm didn't last forever, sadly. Claiborne suffered a groin injury in Week 8 and hasn't been seen since. Now, after a nine-week absence, he prepares to rejoin the team in their first playoff game.
Claiborne's entire career has been polarizing but this 2016 season has taken it to a new level. He's never looked better, or closer to a former Top-10 draft prospect, than he did during those early weeks. But then he missed nine games with yet another injury.
Whatever side of the Morris Claiborne fence you're on, there was evidence to support your position. The question now is where the Cowboys stand on Claiborne's future and what, if anything, he can do to move the needle during this next month.
Morris turns 27 this February, still a prime age for a nice free agent contract. What's more, the cornerbacks entering free agency this offseason are not a huge crop. Even with his red flags, Claiborne could still be one of the most attractive names on the market. Here is a sampling:
- Stephen Gilmore - Bills (age 26)
- Trumaine Johnson - Rams (age 27)
- Captain Munnerlyn - Vikings (age 26)
- Marcus Cooper - Cardinals (age 26)
Gilmore and Johnson will be top targets but you could make a case for Mo being in the Top 3 with them. The point here is that Claiborne, a former elite draft prospect, will be open to the rest of the NFL. Plenty of teams and scouts were looking at him five years ago. Will they look again?
So much depends on what Morris Claiborne does during the playoffs. He needs to enter the offseason on a positive note. It can't be just that he was actually available, though. Claiborne needs to be at the level that we saw early in the season; reminding everyone of why he was once a sixth-overall pick.
Dallas will likely try to keep one of either Claiborne or Brandon Carr. They have Orlando Scandrick under contract and rookie Anthony Brown has been a late-round steal. The Cowboys will want at least one of the other veterans around for stability in 2017.
Carr and Claiborne are polar opposites. Brandon is all about reliability, having never missed a game in nine seasons. He never wows you but plays solidly and is a competent starter when the defense around him are performing. Claiborne is the guy who flashes greatness and keeps you enticed with his upside but just hasn't stayed healthy.
Morris Claiborne has every advantage here. With Carr turning 31 this May, Dallas would obviously rather go with the younger guy. But if they lose faith in Claiborne, the Cowboys might give Carr a short-term deal to provide depth and security while they target a young talent in the draft.
While we all obviously want Dallas to advance in the playoffs, perhaps no player needs it more than Claiborne. One game may not be enough to make a statement. Fortunately, any selfish motivation on Morris' part will only help the Cowboys in their goals of winning a championship. It's a mutually beneficial situation.
Even if this is the last we see of Morris Claiborne in Dallas, we can at least be sure that we're getting his best. Claiborne's ceiling makes him our best cornerback. If he can take a weapon away from Aaron Rodgers, or potentially slow down Julio Jones in the NFC Championship game, it will go a long way to making up for all of the disappointing years before.
Noah Brown Takes to Twitter to Call Out ESPN
ESPN has long been considered "The Worldwide Leader in Sports," and for a long time that title was justified. If you wanted your national sports news, where did you turn to but the cable sports channel to watch that day's episode of SportsCenter. But over the last few years, it's become more and more clear that it's "The Worldwide Leader" in name only.
The ratings are dropping and the network has had to make a lot of business decisions as it relates to much of their on-air talent over the last several years. With their latest under 25 starting 22 -- ahem, troll job -- they seem to have finally come to terms that they are basically First Take.
Noah Brown put it best in his reaction to the ESPN "Insider" voting that led to Saquon Barkley being named to the starting 22 ahead of Ezekiel Elliott. Brown, Elliott's teammate when both were at Ohio State University, came to his defense upon seeing the list.
And here is the ESPN list:
43 of our NFL Insiders voted. Here's their best starting roster under the age of 25.
I'm sure there could be debates about different positions on the squad. Personally, quarterback is one where an argument could be made for Carson Wentz or Dak Prescott over DeShaun Watson, but that's for another time.
But to have a rookie, who has never played a down in the NFL ahead of the NFL's league leader in rushing for 2016, Ezekiel Elliott, is laughable.
The fact that they had 43, again I use the quotations, "Insiders" vote on this and Ezekiel Elliott wasn't listed as one of the two running backs just shows you how far they've come as a network.
Let's remember that Ezekiel Elliott has averaged a touchdown a game -- receiving and rushing -- in his 25-game career. No running back has more rushing yards than Elliott does over the last two years, including 2017 league rushing leader, Todd Gurley. No running back has more rushing touchdowns than Elliott's 22 rushing TDs.
Ezekiel Elliott's yards per carry is a healthy 4.63. Todd Gurley sits at 3.93. No player with more than 1,800 rushing yards over the last two years has a better yards per attempt than Ezekiel Elliott.
I get that you'd vote Todd Gurley in there, but to not have Ezekiel Elliott, arguably the game's best running back on your Under 25 starting 22 just makes you look like Skip Bayless or Stephen A. Smith. Not a sports journalism entity worthy of people throwing money at for "Insider" access.
I won't say that I never or will never watch ESPN, because where else am I gonna go for Monday Night Football, Todd Archer, or the NCAA Men's Lacrosse Championships? When I'm at my father-in-law's, I'll watch SportsCenter first thing in the morning, because it will be on and you don't change another man's television.
"The Worldwide Leader," however, loses credibility when they promote a list like this that has such a glaring omission.
Perhaps, maybe the goal wasn't to put out an accurate list. Maybe the goal was to get us talking about their list, just like when NFL Network releases their Top 100 players list. Like they say, there's no such thing as bad publicity.
This troll job from ESPN has certainly gotten them some publicity, or should I say, notoriety.
Cowboys DE Randy Gregory Reinstated, Will Join Team for Training Camp
The Dallas Cowboys patience with Defensive End Randy Gregory has paid off. Suspended for the better part of 2016 and all of 2017, Gregory has officially been reinstated to join the team for their 2018 training camp. The projected starter at RDE, Gregory will report to Oxnard with the rest of the team on July 25th.
From here, it will be all hard work for Gregory to reconnect with Defensive Coordinator Rod Marinelli and get his promising career back on track. The last time Gregory suited up for the Cowboys, he managed to sack Philadelphia Eagles Quarterback Carson Wentz in a week 17 win. The Cowboys will be expecting much more of this from a player they've supported through multiple violations of the league's heavily criticized substance abuse policy.
Cowboys pass-rusher Randy Gregory's petition for reinstatement was not opposed, according to lawyer Daniel Moskowitz. He's back. "I've never been more proud of any individual in my life. I'm very excited for Randy and his daughter and the rest of the his family.
Among this support staff for Gregory were a number of teammates that wrote formal letters to the NFL as part of his bid for reinstatement. These last few days of preparation before the Cowboys are together again as a team will surely be uplifted by Gregory's presence.
They say no news is typically good news at this point in the offseason, something the Cowboys have come to realize far too often. Today's news shouldn't be confused with a pleasant surprise however, rather something the Cowboys were committed to in getting another premier pass rusher on the field.
Here is the NFL's official press release on their reinstatement of Randy Gregory:
Cowboys, Elliott Should Keep Close Tabs on Le’Veon Bell’s Situation
The deadline for reaching an agreement with franchise tagged players came to an end last Monday, in what turned out to be a pretty uneventful day all around the league. No agreement was reached by any of the teams with their respective players, including the Dallas Cowboys and their promising "War Daddy," DeMarcus Lawrence.
But the Cowboys' front office have something to learn in this process that doesn't involve a player of their own. Something that both the front office and Ezekiel Elliott should be keeping a close eye on.
The Pittsburgh Steelers also failed to secure their franchise tagged player: Running Back Le'Veon Bell. Really, no one expected a deal to be reached among the two parties. The 26-year old football super star is asking for too much money, which has led to the Steelers tagging him twice in consecutive years.
Bell, conscious of his abilities on the field, is asking for a lot of money from his football team. In 2018, he's set to earn over $14.5M under the tag. That's more than twice the money that Devonta Freeman averages per year - 8.25 million - who's next on the list of highest paid running backs in the league and the highest paid on a long-term contract.
Just to clarify: Steelers' offer to Le'Veon Bell last year averaged $13.3 million per year. Steelers' offer to him this year averaged $15 million per year. But Bell does not believe he should be paid as a RB; he believes he should be paid as an elite offensive weapon.
Le'Veon, whose agent has said 2018 will likely be his last season playing as a Steeler, was reportedly offered $15M per year but that wasn't enough for him. Bell wants to get paid as an elite offensive weapon, which he is. But it turns out he's also... a running back.
It's a complicated situation and one that, if it turns out well for him in free agency next year, could revolutionize the entire running back market in the NFL. If it doesn't, he might end up regretting passing on the Steelers' offer for he won't easily find that kind of money with a team that seems to be a Super Bowl contender on a yearly basis.
The Dallas Cowboys' priorities will rely on other players during the next couple of years, but that shouldn't keep them from keeping close tabs on these events since they could be dealing with a similar scenario when Ezekiel Elliott's turn for a new deal comes around.
Fairly assuming that the fifth year option on Zeke's contract will be picked up after the 2018 season, locking him up through 2020, it's a problem that will be down the road for the Cowboys. But it will have to be dealt with at some point.
When his time is up, Elliott should undoubtedly be looking to become the highest-paid in the game, but the amount of money he gets will depend on the outcome of this whole Le'Veon-Steelers thing. David Johnson and Todd Gurley will also play an important role in determining the future of the running back market.
While Elliott hasn't been used as a receiving threat during his first two seasons in the league, he's still an elite offensive weapon for the Cowboys. The team's offense is based around Zeke and the running game, so it will make sense if his demands are somewhat similar from those by Bell.
Elliott might even be franchise tagged once or twice by the Cowboys if things get complicated in the future. Unlike DeMarco Murray in 2014, surely they won't be willing to let him walk in free agency once his contract comes to an end.
For now, it won't be just the Cowboys who will be keeping close tabs on this situation, but also Ezekiel Elliott and his agent. Hopefully, both parties will manage to handle things better than what we're seeing right now in Pittsburgh.
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