One thing has been clear after two games, though. Morris Claiborne is the best cornerback on the team.
Finally healthy and able to play to his potential, Claiborne is on track to maximize his "prove it" opportunity this season. An unrestricted free agent in 2017, Claiborne may wind up being one of the better options on the market.
Naturally, the Cowboys must be wondering if they want to compete with other clubs or go ahead and lock up Claiborne now. Here are the major pros and cons.
PRO: Keep the Price Down
Claiborne's 2016 deal starts at just $2.7 million with roughly another million in incentives. His rookie salary in 2012 was almost $3 million. It's little more than half of what he made last year.
Claiborne has never had a "payday" by NFL cornerback standards. Despite his struggles since entering the league, this is still a guy who once went sixth in his draft class. Claiborne no doubt envisioned having a $10-$15 million per-year contract one day.
Last Spring, 28-year-old Josh Norman got five-year, $75 million deal from Washington. Janoris Jenkins, 27-years-old, got $62.5 million over five years from the Giants. Even at 29-year-old, Shaun Smith got a four year, $40 million contract from Oakland.
Claiborne will have just turned 27 when free agency opens next year. He will be a former sixth-overall pick who may have just had a breakout season. Claiborne will want to get paid, and he probably won't have to look hard for a willing employer.
Dallas should be able to get a discount if they can re-sign Claiborne sooner rather than later. Not only do they keep him from improving his resume, but the Cowboys also can use Claiborne's own health history to their advantage.
After so many physical issues, Claiborne must be worried that any single play could wreck his comeback year. Betting on himself is a huge gamble. Claiborne may be willing to jump at a modest long-term deal rather than roll the dice on making through the season.
CON: Current Health Could be Fool's Gold
Claiborne's history with injuries is a double-edged sword. While it's something Dallas might be able to use as leverage, it could also come back to bite them if he winds up hobbled or unavailable for the next few seasons.
Reclamation projects happen often in the NFL, but often when a new team tries to give a failed early-round pick a second chance. Dallas did this with offensive tackle Marc Colombo back in 2005. He wound up being a fixture at right tackle for the next five seasons.
Dallas went into an internal reclamation project by re-signing Claiborne. So far he's looking like another success, but there's still a lot of football to be played.
PRO: Stability at Transitioning CB Position
Brandon Carr is likely playing his final year as a Cowboy. Orlando Scandrick turns 30 next year and is having some worrisome health problems this season.
Keeping Morris Claiborne around may be necessary just to help stabilize the cornerback position while dealing with these other players. You need at least three quality corners in the modern NFL.
Even if Anthony Brown develops into a quality player, counting on him too much in 2017 seems foolhardy. Dallas will need to add talent to replace Carr and, at the most, see Brown as the insurance against further decline from Scandrick.
If they don't retain Claiborne, the Cowboys could have two big holes at cornerback to solve in one offseason. That would be a major hindrance to their leverage and limit available resources for other needs.
CON: Inflated Value from Cowboys Weak CB History
Saying Morris Claiborne is the best cornerback in Dallas is great, but may be dangerous reasoning. It's like determining the most talented Kardashian or the best thing Stephen A. Smith ever said. You're working from a low bar.
I've always felt that Orlando Scandrick's value has been exaggerated for this same reason. Yes, he's a quality player and very good out of the slot. But even most of us in Cowboys Nation know he's not one of the the top corners in football. Still, he gets held on a bit of pedestal in internal discussions.
Claiborne's value could be similarly inflated. We haven't seen great cornerback play around here since the best days of Terence Newman.
Ironically, Newman went underrated as a Cowboy. I think this was due to the lingering shadow of Deion Sanders. Some especially bad years at the position in 2010-2011 caused us to finally lower the bar.
Now, we can easily mistake competence for brilliance. Claiborne can have a great year from our perspective but perhaps not one that should earn him a big payday by the league's standard.
~ ~ ~
It's hard to have a firm opinion on this as it involves information we don't know. How confident is the Cowboys medical staff in Morris Claiborne's long-term health? How is he grading out on the plays not captured by the TV camera?
How important is money to Claiborne over remaining a Dallas Cowboy?
The factors all make Morris Claiborne one of the most interesting figures of the 2016 season. Dallas has moved money around one some other veteran deals to create cap space. Working out a long-term deal with Claiborne may have been one of the moves they were anticipating.
Then again, maybe both parties want to wait the full season to see where they stand. Claiborne could easily want to have his free agency experience and get the kind of money he, his family, and his agent all imagined he would one day make.
For now, I'm glad we're at least able to have the discussion.
Cowboys Sign WR Devin Smith, Former 2nd-Round Pick
The Dallas Cowboys have reportedly signed Receiver Devin Smith, previously with the New York Jets, to a futures contract. Smith was a 2nd-round pick, 37th overall, in the 2015 NFL Draft.
Before going pro, Devin was a college teammate of current Cowboys Ezekiel Elliott, Rod Smith, and Noah Brown. They were all members of the 2014 Ohio State Buckeyes team that won the National Championship.
Smith's agent, Jason Bernstein, tweeting the following earlier today:
Congrats to WR Devin Smith @dsmithosu for signing with the #DallasCowboys! Welcome back. https://t.co/hCMYoE8fEh
Thus far, Smith's NFL career has been marred by injuries. He has suffered two ACL tears in the same knee and only been able to appear in 14 games. He was waived by the Jets last summer and was not with any team last season.
Overall, the 2015 class of receivers has been disappointing. Amari Cooper has been a star and other later-round picks like Tyler Lockett, Stefon Diggs, and Jamison Crowder have been good. But the other big names of the class, such as Kevin White, Breshad Perriman, and DeVante Parker, have not lived up to the hype.
The Cowboys are known for trying to reclaim players who once had high draft status and bad starts to their careers. They are clearly hoping to cash in on Smith's previously perceived potential, which had him projected as a possible first-round talent at one time.
For both Devin and Dallas' sake, we hope it's a success!
DeMarcus Lawrence Named Top Free Agent Of The 2019 Class
Much has been made about the Dallas Cowboys 2019 free agent class. Dallas has a ton of cap space moving forward, but they are going to "have" to pay many of the key players on their roster over the next two offseasons in order to keep their young core together.
Of course, when you're drafting, that's the goal. To draft so well that when your own players become free agents, you go ahead and pay them to keep them around, rather than overpay on the free agent market for external players.
One of the major pieces the Cowboys will have to retain this offseason is defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence. And while Cowboys Nation often thinks of Lawrence as underrated around the league, the NFL has caught onto his importance as he enters free agency this Spring.
ESPN.com ranked their top 10 free agents for 2019, with DeMarcus Lawrence clocking in at number one, over elite players like Jadeveon Clowney and Le'Veon Bell.
ESPN's top 10 free agents for 2019 and what Le'Veon Bell should be looking to command based on previous measures. https://t.co/aJ7H1n001t
DeMarcus Lawrence is going to command big time money, likely even Khalil Mack-type money. But the fact of the matter is that he has earned it. Lawrence has been the heart and soul of the Cowboys defensive line the last two seasons, and the most consistent edge player on the team as well.
Not only has he been an effective pass rusher, but DeMarcus Lawrence also plays with a relentless motor against the run that can sometimes be rare to find in those premier pass rushers. He really is a jack of all trades at defensive end, and should be priority number one for the Cowboys this offseason.
Thankfully, I can't imagine the Cowboys not retaining DeMarcus Lawrence and extending him in the coming months.
When it Mattered Most, Cowboys Offensive Line Protected Dak Prescott
Throughout the 2018 NFL season, one of the major story lines surrounding the Dallas Cowboys was how frequently Dak Prescott was taking sacks. It's an area that the Cowboys will have to look at in the offseason to better protect their franchise quarterback moving forward. In the playoffs, however, Dak Prescott and the offensive line were much better at keeping their prized possession upright than they were in the regular season.
In the regular season, Dak Prescott was sacked 56 times for an average of 3.5 times a game. There was only one game where he wasn't sacked at all, way back in week two against the New York Giants. Four times this season, the Cowboys' quarterback was sacked five or more times. The New Orleans Saints got him for a season high seven times.
According to Pro Football Focus, Dak was "kept clean" -- not pressured -- on 63% of his drop backs during the regular season, which ranked 25th in the NFL. When kept clean, Prescott completed 74.1% of his passes, which was good for 5th in the NFL during the regular season. He was under pressure 37% of the time, which was the sixth highest rate in the NFL and his completion percentage dropped to 52.6%, still good for 10th in the NFL. It was better than Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes, Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, and Baker Mayfield.
During the playoffs, Prescott's "kept clean" percentage rose from 63% to 68% and he was only sacked once in each game. The one sack against the Los Angeles Rams probably shouldn't have been called a sack as the referee blew the whistle because Prescott was "in the grasp"...
...of his offensive lineman.
During the playoffs, the Cowboys offensive line kept the pressure off of Prescott at a better rate, allowing him to be pressured on only 31.9% of his drop backs. Meaning he was kept clean at an improved rate from the regular season at 68.1% of his drop backs. This while playing against two teams that are really good at rushing the passer. The Los Angeles Rams and the Seattle Seahawks both finished in the top half of the league in sacks this season and feature players like Aaron Donald, Jarran Reed, and Frank Clark who all had double-digit sacks.
As we know, pressure rates and sacks aren't all completely on the offensive line. The quarterback, wide receivers, and the play calling all factor in, but the Cowboys are trending in the right direction with their pass protection. A full offseason for Connor Williams in the Dallas Cowboys strength and conditioning program, better health for Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, and -- fingers crossed -- Travis Frederick, should all help the offensive line play at a higher level heading into the 2019 season.
It can't be overstated how important it will be to get Travis Frederick back into the fold this season. Joe Looney was good, and that might be overstating it a bit. He was not noticeable on most plays during the season, but getting your All-Pro center back will tremendously help the offense in every facet of the game. Frederick's one of the smarter players in the NFL, who helps everyone on the offense to see the blitzes and calls out the protections. Both his mental and physical ability will be a welcomed site when the Cowboys begin practicing in the offseason.
With another year of growth for the quarterback and for the young pieces along the offensive line, and with a full offseason for Dak Prescott to grow with Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and Blake Jarwin, the Cowboys should be better next season at keeping the quarterback clean.
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