Cowboys Backed Into A Corner At Corner?

The landscape on the back end of the Cowboys defense is highly questionable.

The landscape on the back end of the Cowboys defense is highly questionable. Orlando Scandrick, a former fifth-round draft pick, has emerged as not only the team’s best cornerback, but also one of the defense’s fiery leaders. Every team needs to find gems in the later rounds of the draft, it’s essential to building a championship contender. Dallas has certainly done so here, including signing him to an early extension which many scoffed at when it was forged. The only problem here? The players which Dallas invested more resources in who were unable to hold off Scandrick from ascending to the top of the totem.

This is no slight on Scandrick, who excels at all facets of the position. Dallas awarded him a five-year extension in 2011, when he still had a year remaining on his initial rookie four-year deal. They would later follow that with an additional extension which saved immediate money for the team, guaranteed more for Scandrick and added two additional seasons. In 2011, Dallas loved what he brought to the table as a slot defender. Still, though, they didn’t see him as a number one corner, as the very next offseason they made two significant moves at the position. In free agency, Dallas gave a five-year, $50 million contract to Kansas City Chiefs number two man, Brandon Carr. A few months later, Dallas traded up in the first round of the Amateur Draft to select Morris Claiborne. Those were huge investments that the Cowboys have yet to seen proper return on.

This week, Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett intimated Claiborne will not be available for team workouts in the spring, and is likely to be delayed in joining the team for training camp in the summer. This will mark the fourth out of four summer programs where Claiborne will miss significant time from the program. Knee injuries have interrupted the last two camps, and he was unable to join the team initially his rookie season as the team drafted him knowing he needed hand surgery. He’s missed time in season with shoulder, hamstring and knee issues as well. The much-maligned player from LSU tore his patellar tendon and had a long-road back to being a starter even before the injury. Claiborne walked out of the team temporarily after losing his starting spot to Scandrick early in the 2014 season. The injury occurred in the very next game, September 28th against New Orleans.

Claiborne has missed 18 regular season games over the last two seasons.

Cornerback is widely regarded as the second-most difficult position, behind quarterback, to transition to from college to pros. The two most important ingredients to any player’s transition are time on the field in the learning sessions of training camp, and actual game action. Claiborne can’t seem to get enough of either under his belt. Now, he and Dallas will enter the final year of his rookie deal without the player ever getting a single full offseason to prepare himself.

Brandon Carr, on the other hand, has been completely available to the Cowboys in the three seasons he’s been with the club. He’s started 50 out of 50 contests since coming aboard. The issue here is not an injury history or even a lack of NFL-caliber performances. It’s simply that Brandon Carr has not been able to perform anywhere near the level of what Dallas is paying him.

Through three seasons, Carr has pocketed $33 million for six interceptions and 33 pass deflections. The full-guarantee of $25.5m (signing bonus + ’12, ’13 salaries) still ranks as the most guaranteed to any corner currently under contract. In reality, the planned restructuring of the deal prior to 2013 meant the entire $33 million paid this far was really guaranteed. The ROI here has been N/A to say the least.

Carr had a bad season, giving up a 114.0 passer rating and six touchdowns. He has, however, played at a much higher level than what the team has seen from Claiborne in the past. For the record, Claiborne gave up three touchdowns in three games and a 121.5 passer rating against, leading to his benching. Neither has lived up to expectations. Both were brought in under other regimes, and Cowboys fans have convinced themselves that a changing of the defensive scheme will allow them to thrive… but it never seems to happen. Neither player seems to be great at playing zone. Meanwhile, the team never seems to want to commit them to playing true press coverage (or punish them if they are abandoning that edict). One has to consider that they simply aren’t what they were believed to be and the coaching staff is trying to put them in their least vulnerable positions.

So what are the Cowboys to do at the position?

With Claiborne, the answer is pretty straight forward. The team will in all likelihood decline to activate the fifth-year option on his deal that would pay him the average of the top 10 corners in the league. Claiborne’s 2015 salary ($2.607m) is fully guaranteed as part of his rookie deal and his $5.175m cap hit would be all dead money; you can put his name in pen on the 2015 roster. When he’s healthy, he’ll have a chance to earn his snaps, and possibly a future with the team.

Carr is another situation entirely. His contract has finally reached a point where walking away from the player will not add additional charges to the current season’s cap. Carr’s 2015 cap hit currently sits at $12.7 million, while the unamortized signing bonus remaining on his deal totals $12.15 million.

The idea of eating that much dead money rather than just keep the player doesn’t hold much weight until one considers that doing so would free the Cowboys of all future cap hits for Carr. If Dallas chose to walk away from Carr and eat the proration, they would be freeing up almost $14 million of space off of the 2016 cap, and another $13m off the 2017 cap.

As CowboysHQ explained here in the Offseason Manifesto series, future cap space is of vital importance to any big ticket free agent Dallas wants to sign this year, including a long-term deal for star wideout Dez Bryant.

Still though, Carr is a serviceable cornerback, and the club is reportedly in negotiations with the player to agree to a reduction in salary that would keep him in Dallas at a much cheaper rate. What would Carr command as a free agent? That answer, or at least each side betting on a potential answer, would likely be the agreed upon salary. Carr may be prideful and instead of taking a reduction want to test the market. The Cowboys might say “only” $4 or $5m of savings in exchange for guaranteeing multiple years of salary might not be in their best interest. These are the machinations that will play out over the next two to three weeks.

In Part Two, we’ll take a look at the young players in the Cowboys fold, Sterling Moore and Tyler Patmon, as well as some options on the free agent market.

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