Taylor Williams

2014 Is A Do-Or-Die Year For Cowboy Cornerbacks

Created on Apr. 17, 2014 5:00 AM EST

Change is a word and idea often thrown around the Dallas Cowboys organization but seldom acted upon when and where it’s most needed.

Take the Achilles heel of 2013: the pass defense. It was more than just a down year for the Dallas secondary; it was a nonstop thrashing against top-tier and bottom-rung quarterbacks alike, resulting in franchise-worst totals in both passing yards allowed (4,589) and passing first downs (231). The turnovers were a nice touch, but they didn’t mask the fact that the Dallas D couldn’t stop a high school passing game from gaining 10 yards in three plays. Trudging through 16 games without a proven strong safety and with nickel corner Orlando Scandrick emerging as the premiere cover man, nothing about the Cowboys’ pass defense went as scripted.

In other years, that might’ve been grounds for hard re-evaluation of the secondary. But it was 2013 – one year after Brandon Carr inked his big contract and Morris Claiborne became the No. 6 overall pick via a trade with St. Louis. Safety issues notwithstanding, the secondary was supposed to be set at cornerback.

To be fair, Carr had more of a shutdown year in 2012 — 53 tackles that year versus 71 in 2013 – and Claiborne has been hampered by a recurring shoulder injury. When next season rolls around, Carr will be 28 and Claiborne 24, each with two full years in the Dallas system, albeit under different coordinators. Their careers are young; their natural talent thresholds are still high.

But here’s the thing: it’s a matter of logic. How do the ‘Boys expect to improve their historically bad pass defense when, after losing their top two pass rushers in free agency, they don’t address their pass coverage? Drafting a safety and another D-lineman is one thing. But in today’s spread-out, pass-heavy league, you’re sunk without multiple players who can cover short read patterns and disrupt receivers’ routes. Just look at Seattle’s secondary and how far ahead it is of the other 31.

So where am I going with this? It’s simple: 2014 is a do-or-die year for both Carr and Claiborne. If they don’t both improve, and improve significantly, Dallas should trade them, rebuild in free agency in 2015 and accept their stints as failures. To preempt such a scenario, drafting a corner in a later round, like with B.W. Webb (another question mark) last year, might make sense.

While rookie wage scales have ensured that Claiborne isn’t costing the team much, Carr’s on the hook for five years and $50 million — a deal thus far untouched. But between those contract terms and the conditions of Claiborne’s drafting, the Cowboy corners should be feeling the heat of expectation.

There’s a school of football thought that says that in the 4-3, secondary play is dependent on an effective four-man rush. Without that, a secondary’s competence can’t be judged fairly. But the Cowboys just plain have too many injuries and player changes along their D-line for them to that kind of inside-out operation.

They either get better in pass coverage, or brace themselves for another long season on defense. 

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