To the average Cowboys fan (i.e. your relatives and acquaintances who don't read CowboysHQ), Dallas is failing once again in free agency by not going out and signing Janoris Jenkins to play opposite Orlando Scandrick, bolstering the pass rush by giving Olivier Vernon J.J. Watt money, or letting Eric Weddle wait on the open market. (Regarding Weddle, by the way: CHQ broke the story last Thursday regarding Dallas' interest. But we also said that if there are "four teams bidding on him,'' as his representation was floating, you can could Dallas as Team No. 5. So off he goes to the Ravens.) It's another example that Jerry Jones is ruining the Cowboys and more fodder for a community-college dropout to self-publish another anti-Jerry tome like some wannabe Peter Golenbock.
What if I told you it's actually a good thing the Cowboys decided to bring back Hanna, Wilber, and Claiborne?
The classic goal of free agency is to fill the gaps on a team. Did you ever stop to wonder why Giants general manager Jerry Reese had to dole out $204 million of John Mara and Steve Tisch's money this week to bring in Vernon, Jenkins, and defensive tackle Damon Harrison? It's because their defensive line and secondary picks have not panned out, and thus the club is forced to bring in outside talent to bolster areas where their college scouts failed and coaching failed. (Oh, and maybe, Reese is feeling some job heat.)
The '07 Giants didn't need to rely on acquiring free agent talent for their defense to catch fire and upset the undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. The pass-rush was homegrown with Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck, and Barry Coefield along the front line. In the secondary, Aaron Ross manned the left cornerback spot with Gibril Wilson at safety. There were free agents such as right cornerback Sam Madison and defensive tackle Fred Robbins, but the driving force of that defense came from their front office's ability to draft talent worthy enough to retain.
One could argue that was the work of Ernie Accorsi and other previous Giants general managers. So be it -- but Reese did it again in '11. Swap Strahan for second-year Jason Pierre-Paul, Robbins for Linval Joseph, and Wilson for Kenny Phillips. Seven of the 11 defensive starting spots were manned by Giants homegrown talent. Heck, even on the whole team, 15/22 of the offensive and defensive starters were New York talent.
Compare that with the '15 Giants who saw 13/22 of their starters come from their own drafting. That number is expecting to decrease in 2016.
Why focus so much on the Giants? Because they were the most recent NFC East champion who proved to the division that being a championship contender means developing talent through the draft, not free agency, a practice which they have now turned their back upon.
The Cowboys bringing back Hanna bodes well for the running game, no matter who takes the hand-offs in '16 for Dallas. Jason Garrett appreciates Hanna for his blocking abilities, even if others aren't apt to see it.
Said Garrett in 2014, in the midst of DeMarco Murray's first eight games: "I think [Hanna] is a good player in the run game and a good player in the pass game. I think he's under-appreciated athletically, and I think he's getting better technically as a blocker. He's a young player who continues to grow. He wants to be a good player and there's a reason he's playing. He's worthy of having opportunities. We ask him to do a lot of things and some of it's not fancy stuff that's glamorous. It's some of the dirty work. But he embraces it and gets better at it."
The fifth-rounder in '12 out of Oklahoma was the reason in 2015 why '13 second-rounder Gavin Escobar, not known for his blocking skills, only earned four starts to Hanna's seven last year.
Wilber is another player that does "the dirty work" for the Cowboys on defense and special teams. Though drafted in the fourth round out of Wake Forest to be an outside linebacker in Rob Ryan's 3-4, Wilber had to adapt quickly when Dallas brought in Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli to transform their defense into a Tampa-2 scheme. In an historic year for defensive line injuries, Wilber shifted from linebacker to defensive end, wherever the coaching staff needed him that week. In '14, he rolled back to playing linebacker and has stayed there since on the defensive side of the ball and made a key interception that changed Dallas' fortunes in the wildcard round of the playoffs. On special teams, Wilber is an impact player. His blocked punt returned for a touchdown against the Eagles in Week 2 of last year was one of the game's deciding factors.
In the secondary, Claiborne probably will never live up to his top billing. For a pick that was the first defensive player taken in his draft class, Claiborne has had a career arc that has been anything but. Injuries have hurt his development both on and off the field. Just when off-season workouts or training camp was about to commence, something would happen to the former LSU Tiger that would sideline him and take away his ability to learn through experience.
Claiborne had a healthy year at critical points in 2015. He was a full participant throughout training camp despite coming off a season-ending injury that affected his belief that he would even walk again. Of the 11 games he played, he started all of them, including two against the New York Giants and talented wideout Odell Beckham, Jr. In two contests, Beckham only caught nine passes for 79 yards thanks to Claiborne's blanket coverage.
For the Shreveport, Louisiana native who grew up a Cowboys fan, the thought of playing an entire career in Dallas is a lofty goal.
"I'd love to stay here until I retire," Claiborne said during training camp. "It's a great place to be. I love the team. I love the staff. I love the coaches. This is where I want to be. And this is where I'm at now, so I'm going to give it all I've got. Like I said, let God handle the rest."
God, along with the Cowboys front office, worked out a one-year deal for Claiborne worth $3 million. It is nearly three times less than if the Cowboys would have picked up his fifth-year option and paid Claiborne $11 million. Nonetheless, both parties are content and ready to return Dallas to playoff contention in 2016. (Indeed, here, Fish has the breakdown of Mo's contract as Mo predicts he'll "be the best'' in 2016. Premium talk!)
To be an organization that consistently reaches the playoffs, or even a club that plays in the postseason's most consequential game, accuracy in drafting in more important than signing a variety of free agents. Even if Dallas weren't able to retain a majority of their draft class, as was the case last off-season when linebacker Bruce Carter, receiver Dwayne Harris, and running back DeMarco Murray, all of the 2011 class, the Cowboys still got a return on their investment when compensatory picks were handed out by the NFL Management Council. Thanks to the Buccaneers, Giants, and Eagles signing these players to big contracts, along with the Falcons signing veteran linebacker Justin Durant, Dallas has four extra picks in this April's draft to finish with nine total picks that could be used to reload or reinforce their talent.
Though Dallas did well with the '12 draft class, there is cause for concern as the club is already in a decline in retention with their classes from 2013-15. The '13 draft class already has 3/7 of the class either off the team (B.W. Webb) or out of football (Joseph Randle, DeVonte Holloman). Of the '14 class, only 5/9 of their picks are still with the team. And the '15 class already lost a player when the Kansas City Chiefs signed seventh-round tackle Laurence Gibson to their practice squad.
We're not ruling out more street signings. Chris Long, who visits here Wednesday? Nolan Carroll? Another linebacker? A QB? Oh, and more retention of more Cowboys guys, too, as we eyeball Lance Dunbar now following up his Niners visit with a trip to Seattle. We think, by the way, that today's execution of the second leg of the "Tyrone/Tyron Trigger'' -- Crawford's contractual switch making $4.4 mil of room and Smith's making $7.2 mil of room -- isn't necessarily tied to some huge coming signing. We will monitor. But in any event, going forward in '16, Dallas must return to picking players that will either create a good return on investment or stick around as the foundation for competitive teams to come.