Cowboys Trade Talk: Lions Cut Cornerback - A Third Rounder For A Fourth Corner, Anyone?

What's he worth to you?

Hello BTB Community,

I wanted to introduce you to a new front-page writer here at BTB. He goes by the name nobis60, and he's an excellent Cowboys writer. He has been plying his trade at a Texas Longhorns site on SB Nation, but doing mostly Cowboys stuff. After some discussion, we both agreed that he should be dropping knowledge at BTB. So here is his initial post at BTB, and one of many to come. So please welcome him. - Dave

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Greetings BTB'ers! This is my first article on BTB, but I've been a longtime fan/lurker and have also been writing some Cowboys/NFL pieces on another SBNation site (BarkingCarnival.com). As BC is mainly a Texas Longhorns site and I tended to do NFL stuff, the blog owner got me introduced to Dave and he was kind enough to let me join the BTB staff - I'm looking forward to being involved with the best Cowboys community on the web!

I was wondering what to write about when I saw the news that the Lions just cut prospective starting corner Aaron Berry after his latest arrest, which got me to pondering whether Detroit might have a renewed interest in Mike Jenkins as well as the risk-reward tradeoff the Dallas front office would have to consider in evaluating a deal. A surprisingly wordy discussion after the jump...

No real surprise that Detroit might be in the market for secondary help. It's one thing to have your secondary lit up by Drew Brees in the playoffs, but when the Packers' backup QB treats you like he switched the Madden setting to 'Easy' and eviscerates you for 480 yards and 6 TDs, it's natural for you to consider an upgrade here or there. The Lions have apparently had at least some interest in Mike Jenkins since March, as there were rumors of a potential draft-day deal between Detroit and Dallas that would have had Jenkins trading in the silver and blue for the...um...other silver and blue? Despite their apparent interest no deal was reached, however - if there's been any scuttlebutt as to what Detroit's offer might have been (if indeed things even reached the formal offer stage) at the time, I'm not aware of it.

Fast forward to yesterday, when Detroit cut Berry after a spate of drunk driving and pistol waving incidents that were too much for even the Lawless Lions to stomach. (It's not all bad news for Berry, though - apparently his exploits have him in talks to take on the Doc Holliday role in the upcoming reboot of Tombstone). Could the Lions front office be casting an eye in Jenkins' direction? And if so, what offer would make it wise for Dallas to pull the trigger? Exploring this question raises some interesting issues of risk vs. reward and immediate vs. deferred value for contending teams.

To set the stage for my thoughts here, there are three core beliefs about the NFL and the 'Boys that shape the lens through which I view any potential personnel move:

1) The Pass is Primary in the NFL, now more than ever. That means not only is your ability to throw the ball crucial to success, but your ability to stop your opponent's passing game is vital as well. Proof abounds for this idea, but to me the most compelling set of data comes from looking at teams' net Passing Efficiency Differential (or PED for short) as calculated by combining their offensive and defensive Passing Efficiency DVOA rankings from the Football Outsiders boys.

In 2011, the top ten teams in PED ALL made the playoffs. To be sure, some did it by being awesome throwing and fair to bad at stopping the pass (Green Bay and New England) while others were awesome at stopping it and only so-so in throwing it (Baltimore and San Francisco), but the differential was a powerful indicator. In 2010, nine of the top 13 in PED made the playoffs (with #3 PED team San Diego derailed by a historic special teams meltdown and #8 PED team Tampa Bay missing the playoffs despite a 10-6 record). In 2009, the top 8 PED teams all made the playoffs and all 12 playoff participants were in the top 17 in PED. Those three seasons of data tell a pretty powerful story about the relative priority of the run vs. the pass in the modern game.

2) I think in terms of playoff contenders, not Super Bowl contenders - since the Giants' unlikely 2007 win, the Super Bowl has been claimed by a #5 seed (Giants), #2 seed (Steelers), #1 seed (Saints), #6 seed (Packers) and a #4 seed that was actually OUTSCORED in the regular season (Giants). While you obviously want to be seeded as highly as possible, that to me tells the story of a post-season crapshoot - if you're a playoff contender, you can consider yourself a Super Bowl contender.

3) The Cowboys are currently playoff contenders, and I believe that the contention window for this current squad lasts as long as Tony Romo and DeMarcus Ware are difference-making players at their positions - in other words, through about the 2015 season. I cringe to start out on a Cowboys' blog by quoting George Allen, but the future is NOW - or at least, now and the next couple of years.

So that's what I believe. I think the Cowboys believe something similar, if their efforts to shore up the pass defense this offseason are any indication. I also think the Lions are of the same mindset - there's no question that they've built an (almost absurdly) pass-first offense, and their defensive front's tendency to tear willy-nilly upfield after the QB with zero regard for trap blocks makes me doubt that run stuffing is foremost in their minds. While Detroit may feel less contention-window urgency given the youth of critical pieces like Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Big Suh, few teams will be passive about filling perceived holes if they have a shot at the big time. If you've got two teams, both interested in winning now who both believe that stopping the pass is of primary importance, can you agree on a present vs. future tradeoff that works for both sides?

Let's look at Detroit's perspective first. Despite their late-season woes, the Lions' pass D was pretty effective throughout most of 2011 - they ranked an impressive 4th in Football Outsiders' defensive pass efficiency metric despite giving up a lot of raw passing yards as opponents chased their high-scoring offense. Their DL's aforementioned upfield-rushing ways had more to do with that figure than their secondary, though - outside of free safety Louis Delmas there probably wasn't an above-average player in Detroit's defensive backfield. Corner Chris Houston wasn't bad, and he's back as the Lion's number one guy. The thoroughly average Eric Wright was violently overpaid by Tampa this offseason, leaving Berry as the likely #2 starter with former Colt Jacob Lacey grabbing nickel duties. With Berry out, Lacey is likely to be overmatched as a starter while either the highly flammable Alphonso Smith or third round rookie Dierks Dwight Bentley could be over-exposed in the slot. After watching the Packers and Saints basically burn out the scoreboard lights last year, adding a guy like Jenkins as (at minimum) quality depth or (more likely) a #2 starter has to be a tempting proposition. Grabbing a fix for an increasingly messy situation would seemingly be worth a third rounder - especially for a team that hopes to be picking near the bottom of every round next offseason.

So if we buy the idea that Detroit would offer up a 3rd in 2012, should the Cowboys bite?

In a lot of ways, a team's cornerback rotation is kind of like a baseball team's starting pitching rotation. Add an ace at the top, and suddenly your former #1 starter (who might have been solid but not a true top-of-the-rotation guy) is facing off against the other team's #2 starter. Your #2 faces their #3 and so on, until your formerly overmatched #5 guy is now holding down the long man spot in the pen. With the addition of stud free agent Brandon Carr, most of Dallas' defensive backfield can breathe a little easier - Mo Claiborne still probably gets a full baptism by fire on the outside since Rob Ryan apparently has no plans to 'shadow' top WRs with Carr, but Scandrick can operate in his preferred slot role while Jenkins largely handles spot/dime package duty. Unfortunately, that street runs both ways - lose a guy at the top, and everyone below gets pushed into a situation that increasingly stretches their abilities. The Cowboys lost their season opener against the Jets largely because injuries had them trotting out flotsam and jetsam at corner against Plaxico Burress, and they certainly carry their own fresh scars from late-season secondary woes. What kind of reward balances out the risk of losing another season in a closing contention window if a key corner goes down in 2012?

By most estimation, getting a third-rounder for one year of an up-and-down, injury-prone corner is at least 'fair' and could probably be considered quite a haul. But given the Cowboys' situation - not only being a contender, but a contender whose defensive style puts a ton of pressure on its outside corners and whose safeties can't be counted on to erase too many mistakes - 'fair' may not be enough. Could a late third-rounder in 2013 help you enough in 2014 and 2015 to justify the risk in 2012?

The case for the pick: Jenkins is certainly out of Dallas' plans in 2013, and with them up against the cap for the next few seasons there's additional value in possibly netting a cost-controlled starter with that additional pick or using it as trade-up ammo should, say, a true two-way defensive end or centerfield safety sit tantalizingly on the 2013 draft board. That pick is far more likely to turn into more starts, more snaps and more value during Dallas' window than Jenkins is in 2012.

The case for standing pat: Jerry has gone on at length about Jenkins being key to Dallas' plans, and while some of that is no doubt pre-negotiating through the 'meedja' there's likely some truth to it. Scandrick has gotten work in safety-type looks, and with the spot opposite Sensi far from settled it's likely that Jenkins could see substantial work in certain packages even without an injury to a top-three starter. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush - if you believe you're a contender now, don't compromise your chances.

If I'm the Cowboys, I think I take the third rounder. I ask for a second, hold out to see if Detroit's secondary gets fricaseed in the preseason or if another contender's corner goes down while standing firm, but ultimately I'd take the third before the regular season starts.

What say you, BTB brethren?

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