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Which Cowboys Rookies Could Start This Year?

Tyron Smith is proof that starting a rookie can sometimes be your best option.
Tyron Smith is proof that starting a rookie can sometimes be your best option.

One of the hardest things to do while waiting for the pre-season is to not start frying up a mess of chicken when the eggs haven't even been laid, much less hatched. Or, to dial down the folksy wisdom factor a notch (consider that my Andy Griffith tribute), we should be cautious about proclaiming rookies ready to take over starting jobs when they haven't even been able to practice.

Fortunately, during a plenary multi-faith convocation of all major and minor religious faiths, special dispensation has been granted to NFL fans for the agonizing dead weeks between the end of the offseason training activities and the beginning of pre-season, and such wildly speculative opinionizing will not be held against us. Besides, we don't care.

The Dallas Cowboys had what is considered to be a very good draft, and picked up some pretty intriguing UDFAs as well. Coming off the 2011 season, the team obviously had some issues that have been thoroughly documented here. Many of them were addressed, some quite well, in free agency, but there are still some places where it is entirely possible that a rookie may offer a better option than any other solution the team has.

There is always an argument offered about starting a kid fresh out of college. It goes that they have to adjust to the pro game. One of the more commonly cited examples, at least around here, is the experience of Patrick Peterson. A very talented young man and an immediate impact in the return game, he struggled a bit at cornerback. Since that is the same position played by Dallas' own Pick 6, Morris Claiborne (and at the same college, LSU), this argument is seen by many as a prime reason for the team to not expect Claiborne to move into a starting role right away.

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Well, I disagree. I think Mo is one rookie that should and will start, perhaps in the first game of the season. And he is not the only rookie I think will start (although not all would necessarily be starting on September 5th).

Follow after the jump for my reasons why I am right, and all who disagree with me have pasty, skinny arms.

Staying with the specific example of cornerback, this is considered one of the most difficult positions at which to make the jump from college to the NFL. Peterson was the top pick in the 2011 draft, and he clearly had struggles when he was placed in the starting lineup on day one. But there is also an example, from a year earlier, that shows a rookie cornerback can become a first year starter. (And I would like to thank KD for putting this up in another forum.)

The one exception? Joe Haden, 2010 draft pick of the Cleveland Browns. Haden was drafted and initially coached up by none other than Rob Ryan and Jerome Henderson; the defensive coordinator and secondary coach for the Cowboys.

Haden was allowed to learn in a limited environment instead of being thrown into the fire. He played very limited snaps through the first eight games of the season as the left corner before being moved into the starter's role for the second half of the season. Haden flourished, with 11 passes defensed, six interceptions and a 50.1 QB Rating against.

Hmm. As KD says to wrap things up, it is food for thought.

And I have always been a little skeptical of the whole "it's too hard to translate from the college game to the NFL" argument. Isn't quarterback the most complicated role to learn when making that jump? And would not Andrew Luck be considered a near-instant bust if HE does not start on day one for the Indianapolis Colts? Are not the fans of the Washington Redskins going to be up in arms if Robert Griffin III is not under center to start the season? Isn't there a bit of a controversy brewing with the Miami Dolphins because eighth-overall pick Ryan Tannehill is rumored to not be in the running for the starting job? Remember Cam Newton last year? Andy Dalton (a second-round pick)?

I don't buy the argument. The only reason I can see that a quarterback might have more success than a cornerback in making the jump would be the coaching effort involved. The signal callers probably get more attention from the staff than anyone else - but I think that can be adjusted if you need your first round pick to produce. And, as noted above, the Cowboys do have some skill in getting those draftees up to snuff.

It's not like Dallas has recently seen no first year player have a big impact. I seem to remember a certain Tyron Smith starting every game his rookie year, and becoming one of the highest-rated players at his position. And DeMarco Murray made the most of his opportunity when he had a chance (and yes, I will throw in the caveat that running back tends to be much more "plug and play" than many other positions).

So why not work with a rookie and at least keep open the possibility that he can step up and play with the big boys right out of the gate? If he is a better option than other players on the roster, then he should get the call. And Mike Jenkins does not seem like a better choice right now. I put a lot of weight on attitude and motivation, and the adjectives I would put with those words respectively regarding Jenkins are "bad" and "lacking".

Morris Claiborne was my example for this, but he is not the only rookie I think will be starting (or, in one example, playing a key role) before the year is out. The others:

Ronald Leary. With Mackenzy Bernadeau's hip surgery, and the continuing rumbles about David Arkin's lackluster progress, the door may be wide open for him. We know how high the team (especially my favorite example of Darwinism, Jerry Jones) is on him, feeling that the concerns about his knees kept him from going as high as the third round. Well, in 2011, the team started the year with a seventh-rounder at guard, Bill Nagy, and he may have started all sixteen games if he had not broken his leg. I think this guy has one key intangible: He is on a mission to prove that everyone was wrong about him and his knee, and that may be just the edge he needs. If anyone has a better chance than Morris to be a day one starter, it's Ron.

Matt Johnson. By sacred vow, ironclad and irrevocable contract, and noble sense of duty, I cannot have another pet cat this year. Which causes me to sulk endlessly every time I see anything about this kid. There is a great similarity in the instincts that jump off the video when you look at him and Morris. And he would be another person on which Ryan and Henderson could work their coaching alchemy. Plus, with Brandon Carr already on board to shore up the cornerbacks, Matt may fill a bigger need than Mo. He would be the player I would most expect to follow a Haden-type trajectory - I don't know if he will be quite there the first week, but Brodney Pool is going to be feeling the heat by late October.

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Danny Coale. Not a candidate to be a starter, but to fill the important, much discussed, and hotly contested third wide receiver position. It's one of those positions that make the starting lineup a bit pointless, in that it may see more plays than some of the starters listed at the top of the TV broadcasts. And he is my one real, irrevocable pet cat. He has to come through to prove that there is no curse associated with me, so people can put those effigies and gas cans away. I do just like what he brings, and once again, there is an opportunity on the team. If he steps up, he can claim this role.

Now, I need to make one clarification. I do not think any of these four should be given the starting job. I think they are going to earn it. They are each going to show in camp and the pre-season games that they are the best option the team has at their respective positions. And I don't think it is going to result in major issues, because I think these four guys have what it takes to move pretty rapidly from college to the pros. My hopes are probably colored by how badly I want this to be an epic year for drafting/UDFA signings, but, well, we all know what color is involved there. Besides, it is the dead time before pre-season. I have dispensation.


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