Like most of us, I really didn't see the Morris Claiborne move coming. I thought Mike Jenkins and Brandon Carr would make a fine tandem. Jenkins played through a lot of pain last year, which was a big improvement over some of his ole defense in years past. Plus, there seemed to be needs at center, offensive guard, nose tackle, free safety, wide receiver, outside linebacker, and tight end. In each of those areas, the Cowboys either need depth, a better starting option or a replacement for someone who could be gone after next year. So why trade up for a CB?
A possible answer after the jump.
I think there are two reasons for the move.
A Replacement for Mike Jenkins or Orlando Scandrick in 2013
The Cowboys can let one of these guys go after 2012 and pick a developmental corner back in the 2013 draft. That's all about smart cap management. You can only spend so much of your cap on one part of the defense. Jenkins will be a free agent and could warrant a bigger contract or could slide into the slot Scandrick has now. Plus, if Claiborne takes snaps away from Jenkins, as he almost certainly will do, Jenkins might not get the free agent contract from Dallas or anyone else that he would have as a starter in 2012. From a cap standpoint, the Scandrick contract makes it quite possible to cut him after the 2012 season without taking a terrible cap hit. Now, there's plenty of time to see which direction to go. In this post, check out the way Rabblerouser saw this contract issue.
Significant Defensive Improvement
Rob Ryan has a vision. In that vision, Quarterbacks don't know where the pressure is coming from. Some times it comes up the middle with an inside linebacker or a safety. Sometimes it comes from a corner back. And always there's a threat from the front seven. With great cover corners, it's far more difficult for the QB to find an open receiver in when a blitz happens. That will lead to sacks and, more importantly, interceptions. After Ryan was hired, Bob Sturm wrote a very insightful blog post about the potential for pressure from the defensive backfield.
Turnovers are key to winning games. OCC had an excellent post about Garrett's vision for winning football games. In that vision, Garrett wants to win the fourth quarter, something the Cowboys failed to do painfully in 2011, and win the turnover battler. In a press conference last year, here's what Garrett said on that matter:
"The stats that we emphasize for our football team more than anything else is the turnover differential. The correlation between turnover differential and winning in the NFL is significant. In 2010 it was significant, the last 10 years it's been significant, the last 20 and the last 30. And the players have heard this in meetings over and over and over again."
Claiborne, between being a great cover corner, a guy with good hands and great pick-six potential, Rob Ryan can dial up the pressure on the QB and create the kind of chaos that leads to turnovers.
Right now, defensive improvement will occur because we now have three corners with pro bowl potential and a significant upgrade at inside linebacker with the signing of Dan Connor and the health of Bruce Carter. Could we use a stud nose tackle who could collapse the pocket and allow us to slide Ratliff to DE? Sure. Would it be great to have an upgrade at free safety? You bet. But it's not hard to see the defense being a LOT better next year.
And let's not forget how often corners are injured. There's no guarantee that Carr and Claiborne will be healthy all year.
Finally, it's no secret that the passing game is dominating the NFL in historic fashion. In the yen and yang of sports, maybe the cover corner depth is going to be more important than it ever was. With three and four receiver sets becoming prevalent, a third and fourth corner is becoming more and more necessary.
I'm not saying the Cowboys are going to have the best defense in the NFL, but with this latest upgrade to the defense, it's not hard to see the Cowboys improving a lot on defense next year. If so, the defense will take a lot of pressure off of Romo to win games in spite of the defense, especially in the fourth quarter.