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STAR: Let’s Not Count These Four Players Out Just Yet

Posted May 26, 2014


The author of “America’s Team: The Official History of the Dallas Cowboys,” Sullivan also writes a new column in each issue of Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine. For subscription information, please click here.

Gavin Escobar was a waste of a second-round pick.

Know what the first initial of B.W. Webb’s name stands for? Bust.

And, of course, the Cowboys should have taken a safety in the first round of this year’s draft because J.J. Wilcox just isn’t the answer. Ditto Joseph Randle at running back.

Haven’t even mentioned Morris Claiborne yet, who has to be the worst pick in franchise history. Right there with Bobby Carpenter, Billy Cannon, Bill Thomas and Sonny Gibbs.

At this point, the Cowboys would be better off just cutting ties with the whole bunch. Release them all. There is no hope for any of them.

This is the world in which we now exist. If a player doesn’t vie for Rookie of the Year honors that first season, they are labeled a bust. It’s ridiculous, and yes, I was being factious. By no means are any of the aforementioned players busts at this point.

Yet, over the last few weeks, each of them, countless times, has been mentioned as disappointments by both the fans and the media. Have heard time and again that the team can’t count on any production in 2014 from Escobar or Webb, that Wilcox is shaky at best. As for Claiborne, many feel he should be regulated to nickel duty and his career with the Cowboys is headed toward a most disappointing conclusion two seasons from now. It’s astounding how quickly so many rush to judge.

Want to specifically look at these four players, although for the record, there are more examples from the 2012 and 2013 draft classes.

Escobar

This was viewed by many as a luxury pick when the Cowboys took him in the second round of the 2013 draft with the No. 47 overall selection. And in retrospect, sure, maybe a defensive lineman would have made more sense. Still, it’s absolutely preposterous to think Escobar won’t have a successful NFL career.

First off, Escobar has arguably the best hands on the team in terms of catching the ball. Have to watch him practice; the kid doesn’t drop a pass. And he’s the ideal red-zone target, all of 6 feet, 6 inches, extends well, finds the open seam on those quick 10-yard routes. Wouldn’t be surprised if he caught eight or nine scores in 2014.

So what was the problem last year? Escobar rarely blocked at San Diego State, just wasn’t part of the responsibility for a tight end in that scheme. New offensive coordinator Scott Linehan could certainly tweak some of Escobar’s blocking assignments, limit him to chip blocks perhaps, but either way, his snaps should at least double, if not triple from his 207 a season ago.

Also, perhaps more so than any position outside of quarterback, tight ends usually takes a few seasons to develop. Just take a look at the better ones in franchise history:

Doug Cosbie, taken in the third round in 1979, caught 24 passes his first 48 games before going on to three Pro Bowl nods.

Billy Joe DuPree caught 67 passes his first three seasons before earning a trio of Pro Bowl nods.

Jay Novacek caught 22 passes his first three seasons with the Cardinals and was non-existent (225 yards) the year before landing with Dallas in 1990. With the Cowboys, he was a five-time Pro Bowl selection and won three Super Bowls.

Eric Bjornson, a fourth-round pick in 1995, caught seven passes his rookie season before hauling in 95 the next two years.

Even Jason Witten mustered just 347 receiving yards and a touchdown as a rookie in 2003.

So let’s reserve judgment on Escobar for another season or two before deciding he’s a bust.

Webb

Looking back, and this may be frustrating to some, the fourth-rounder from William & Mary was a project of sorts, especially coming from a smaller school. Watched a lot of Webb at training camp and his athleticism is ridiculous. The cornerback was making plays all over the place, but it was obvious he was more or less just following his instinct for the ball rather than playing within the defensive scheme.

To steal a Bill Parcells line, he spent his rookie season like a ball in tall grass. Lost. And while that can be understood for a corner, Webb didn’t contribute much on special teams either. Was a learning process.

Again, though, this was to be expected, so let’s give the kid another season or two to develop. The talent is there and he works hard. I would be surprised if we didn’t see significant improvement this season.

Wilcox

Kept writing and saying that the Cowboys weren’t taking a safety early in this year’s draft and was told that, as usual, I was utterly clueless. Of course, the Cowboys were taking a safety. The majority of the national media’s mock drafts for months were touting Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and others. Wasn’t happening, was never in the plans. Why?

The Cowboys are already invested in a young free safety, their third-round pick from a season ago, J.J. Wilcox. They really like this kid. Also, they feel undrafted free agent Jeff Heath played a lot better than anyone realizes. For now, though, we’ll stick with Wilcox.

After missing part of training camp after the death of his mother, the Georgia Southern product cracked the starting lineup by Week 3 vs. St. Louis, and actually ended up playing his two best games of the season those first two weeks. After a couple more solid starts, Wilcox sprained his knee at Philly and missed more than a month. Upon returning, he had definitely regressed and was never able to take the gig back from Heath.

Make no mistake, Wilcox is more talented, quicker, and the hands down front-runner to start this year, but for whatever reason, he struggled those final six games. Then again, who didn’t on the defense?

Wilcox is my choice to be this team’s most improved player in 2014.

Claiborne

This is obviously a more complex situation for a multitude of reasons. He was the first defensive player taken in the 2012 NFL Draft. Two of the three defensive players taken immediately after him, Luke Kuechly and Dontari Poe, already rank among the elite players in the league at their respective positions. That’s definitely frustrating.

Health has been an issue, too. Also, unlike Wilcox, Webb and Escobar, this is going to be Claiborne’s third season, not his second. It’s time to see some progress. Like now. And this whole nickel corner nonsense has to stop. Claiborne is going to be given every opportunity to start. He has to be. Orlando Scandrick is better in the slot anyhow and is going to be on the field for 80 percent of the snaps regardless.

Claiborne has added some bulk and strength this offseason and couldn’t be more motivated to live up to the expectations that come with being such a high draft pick. Whether he can stay healthy and produce, that’s still uncertain.

It’s worth pointing out that the Cowboys were not alone in their evaluation of him. Almost every team in the league rated him as the top corner in the draft. Hard to believe everyone was wrong. We’ll start to find out for sure this season.

Follow Jeff Sullivan on Twitter, @SullyBaldHead, or email him at jsullivan@dallascowboys.net.

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