Five Decisions That Shaped The Cowboys Season, Pt. II: Trading Up For Mo Claiborne

At what cost Mo? - Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

When the Cowboys traded up to draft Mo Claiborne they secured a blue-chip talent. By trading away their second-rounder to get him, Dallas played a familiar refrain, in which they failed to reinforce the offensive and defensive lines with quality talent.

In the first installment of this five-part series on decisions, moments or (over) reactions that had significant long-term repercussions over the course of the 2012 season, we looked at the season-long effects of Dallas' decision to apply the franchise tag to Anthony Spencer. Today, we do the same with their decision to trade up in the 2012 draft to select Mo Claiborne.

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In the weeks leading up to the 2012 draft, there was no consensus choice for the Cowboys, who held the fourteenth pick in round one. Unlike the previous year, when Tyron Smith was in our sights soon after the Super Bowl, each mock draft seemed to feature a different possibility for Dallas, and each mock drafter offered a new option each week. That sense of uncertainty was blown wide open when, just as we settled in to watch the draft unfold, the Cowboys suddenly struck, trading up to secure the services of a fellow named Mo Claiborne. On multiple levels, this stunning development was a huge win. Lets review:

Dallas, you may recall, got good value in the trade. The standard draft pick value calculator shows that they paid 1550 points (14 + 45) for 1600 points (6). Further, the chart suggests that such a move up should have cost Dallas their fourth-rounder in addition to the second they gave up. And, since Claiborne was the last blue-chipper left on the board, the Rams could have used that fact to leverage a better package.

Because they didn't, Dallas pulled off a rare coup. The cardinal rule of trading up in the first round of the NFL draft is: do it only to secure a blue-chipper, the kind of player who has evident, perennial All-pro talent. Blue-chippers consistently win one-on-one matchups and keep opposing coordinators awake at night devising schemes designed to minimize that advantage. The 2012 draft had six blue-chippers, only one of whom, Claiborne, was a defensive player.

As Jason Garrett mentioned in the press conference after the pick, Claiborne was the second-rated player on the Cowboys' board. He was also the second-rated player on Wes Bunting's and Nolan Nawrocki's boards, and probably held a similar position on many other teams' boards as well. Pro Football Talk reported immediately after the draft that Mo was the top-rated player on the Vikings' board (they took offensive tackle Matt Kalil anyway). To get a player of that caliber when starting the day with the fourteenth pick is quite an accomplishment.

As O.C.C. wrote yesterday, Claiborne had a bit of a rough go of it last season, suffering especially in the season's second half (at least according the notorious PFF grades). Nonetheless, I feel certain that number 24's future is bright and continue to be thrilled by the pick, and to applaud Dallas' move to trade up to acquire him.

As with any coin, however, there are two sides. By selecting an edge player and mortgaging their second-round pick to get him, the Cowboys guaranteed once again that they would not select an offensive or defensive lineman (or, better, one of each, in either the first or second round). This continued a long stretch of drafts where the big uglies up front were neglected. Since 2000, Dallas has had 24 first or second round picks; five of these have been spent on offensive or defensive linemen. From 2001-'04, they drafted an O-lineman in the second round every year, then neglected the position until 2011's choice of Tyron Smith. Marcus Spears is the only first or second DL taken in that span.

The last time the Cowboys drafted offensive and defensive linemen in the first two rounds of the same draft was 1999, when they brought the uninspiring Ebenezer Ekuban and Solomon Page into the fold, a double-dip that they also executed the previous year, when they picked up a much better pair in Greg Ellis and Flozell Adams.

In the past two drafts, Dallas had an opportunity (and, I think, the desire) to return to the '98-'99 plan: in 2011, they were targeting Tyron Smith and hoping one of the top 5-techniques, perhaps an Adrian Clayborn, would drop to the early second round; in 2012, it looked like they would go for one of the top D-linemen (say a Fletcher Cox or Michael Brockers) and then, the draft gods willing, dip into the historically rich treasure trove of second round interior linemen, getting a guy like Amini Silatolu or Jeff Allen. In 2011, the D-linemen were snapped up long before Dallas' second round pick; last year, they traded up for Claiborne.

So, while I'm not against the Claiborne choice, it did have lingering effects. All season long, the Cowboys struggled to win battles on the line of scrimmage; with a couple of exceptions (Baltimore, cough, cough) the Dallas offensive line was consistently whupped. A notable example can be found in week five contest against the Bears. Though Romo was only sacked once, on the Cowboys' opening series, he was pressured relentlessly and took a severe beating.

But the O-line was far from the only culprit. Against a very poor Bears front, which had given up 11 sacks and 20 pressures in the season's first three contests, the Cowboys D-line generated almost no pressure. Jay Cutler was sacked twice - the first was a coverage sack (and a great strip by DeMarcus Ware); the second came in inconsequential garbage time, on the Bears second-to-last play - and pressured seldom. To my mind, quarterback play is a reflection of line play. The game feature two turnover-prone quarterbacks who were susceptible to pressure: Tony Romo threw five interceptions, while Jay Cutler threw two TD passes. ‘Nuff said.

The Bears game was not an isolated incident. As has been detailed on these and lesser pages, the poverty of both lines negatively impacted the team's overall performance. The Cowboys rushed for 3.6 yards per carry, and had ten games in which they rushed for 65 or fewer yards. The defense rarely created pressure, finishing the season with a paltry 34 sacks, the lowest total since 2004. The lack of pressure led to a lack of turnovers: Dallas collected an embarrassingly low seven interceptions and nine forced fumbles; the 1.3 turnovers per game ranked the Cowboys 26th in the NFL.

To reiterate, I'm not in any way opposed to the organization's choice to trade up to select Claiborne. By all accounts, it was a thoughtful, considered process in which the benefits and costs were carefully measured. But I do think that, to some degree, it reflects a longstanding team-building philosophy, which is to build from the outside in - to take deluxe edge players who are marvelous in space and hope that the center holds so that they can work their athletic magic.

In recent years, we've seen the limitations of that philosophy. And, to make matters worse, those limitations tend to manifest late in games, especially close contests: an unreliable running game that can't convert in short yardage or eat clock and the inability to generate pressure when its most needed. I may be shortsighted here, but, to my mind, 2012 offered the worst example of this in the Jerry Jones era (yes, worse than the Campo years). Its not therefore the direct selection of Claiborne that plagued 2012 (that is frankly unfair), but its philosophical extension.

I love me some Mo Claiborne, but I'll always wonder what 2012 might have looked like had they gone in the other direction and fortified both lines. I know second-guessing the draft is a fools errand, but image if you will that they had opted for the likes of All-Rookie selections Brockers (Rams) and Allen (Chiefs), both of whom were taken within one pick of Dallas' initial position....

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