Average is a tough thing to be. Average means you're not competing for a championship, depriving your fans of the hope of immediate contention. Average also means you're working with average draft assets, depriving fans of the ability to bank everything on the bright hope of future contention. The Cowboys were average this year, and they've been average for quite a while. Building a strong team despite that status quo isn't easy.
Top 10 Cowboys in '13: #10
Fortunately for the Cowboys, they do have a nice core of players assembled. They have drafted well over the past three years (a rarety for this franchise) and those young cornerstones, as well as a few holdovers from the Bill Parcells era, give the team a decent base. What we'll do here over is go through the team's roster and rank the ten players most indispensable to the Cowboys' success. Keep in mind that this isn't about the players who stand out most relative to their peers at their position -- LP Ladouceur may be the best long snapper in the league, but he's still a longsnapper, so he won't be here.
This also isn't strictly about the future. Anthony Spencer is a free agent, and there is no guarantee the Cowboys bring him back. Jason Witten and Tony Romo have reached the age where they're far more likely to decline than improve. But those three players will be featured prominently on the list. Think of this as a list for 2013. Over the coming year, these should be the best of the Cowboys' best; their most important pieces in the hunt for contention.
#10: Cornerback Morris Claiborne
Mo Claiborne came into this season with hype seemingly magnetized to him from every direction. The Cowboys gave up picks #14 and #45 in the draft to trade up to the sixth spot and select the LSU cornerback. Claiborne had won the Jim Thorpe award as the country's top defensive back. He was rated as a top 5 prospect by nearly every draft expert with access to a camera, typewriter or the internet. He was rated as a top 2 prospect by the Cowboys scouts, with generational QB prospect Andrew Luck the only player ahead of him (Yes, that's right. The Cowboys had Claiborne rated higher than RG3). In fact, Dallas' scouts have not thought as highly of a defensive back since 1989. Yes, that's the year Deion Sanders went fifth overall to the Falcons.
"He s on that level where not too many of the guys are doing the things that he s doing and I believe I can be that type of player also."
That's a quote not about Claiborne, but from Claiborne, speaking after the draft. Who was he talking about? Only Darrelle Revis, widely regarded as the best cornerback the NFL has seen since Deion. Morris Claiborne has sensational ability. He has the drive to be the best. He's playing for a team that undoubtedly believes in him. So why is he only #10 on this list?
Claiborne wasn't great in 2012. That's not to say he wasn't occasionally great; the rookie flashed plenty of ability. But he was inconsistent, had his weaknesses exploited and had periods of time in which he simply looked lost. He started opposite Brandon Carr from game one and played at an above-average level despite a lot of one-on-one coverage assignments. The Cowboys' safeties and inside linebackers were as badly beat-up as any group in the team's recent history, leading to an inordinate degree of pressure on Claiborne and Brandon Carr (and to a lesser degree, Orlando Scandrick and Mike Jenkins).
Claiborne is the perfect candidate to take a big step forward in 2013. He's only 22 years old, has tremendous talent and should be playing behind a better, healthier defense. In fact, were this list based on the future he'd likely be in the top three. But as is, Mo is still no slouch. And with him and Brandon Carr (who was the first runner-up for this list) starting at cornerback, Cowboys fans have good reason to be excited about next year.
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