Spagnola: With Mo Better, An Improving Defense Just Might Turn The Corner

IRVING, Texas – Let's play a little what if.

         What if Brandon Carr picks up where he left off last year, playing much better the latter part of the season, especially in those playoff games, and in particular at Green Bay dealing mostly with Jordy Nelson?

What if Orlando Scandrick – assuming he's eligible to play all 16 games this year, unlike being suspended for the first two last year – continues to prove he's a starting-quality corner and worth every penny of that bump in pay this coming season?

What if Byron Jones, even if in a supporting role, playing mostly on the nickel or dime defenses, either outside or inside in the slot, is the real deal when the pads come on, just as we witnessed during the OTAs and minicamp practices this offseason?

What if Tylor Patmon, the rookie free agent from Oklahoma State who came out of nowhere in 2014, takes the next step in Year 2 and also is worthy of snaps on either the nickel or dime defenses or as a backup to the starters?

What if Corey White is as versatile as advertised, a little corner, a little safety?

And …

What if, just what if, Morris Claiborne is as healthy as he seemed during the final minicamp workouts, and is ready to go as soon as the Cowboys set down on July 28 in Oxnard, Calif., for the start of training camp after having gone through dual knee surgeries over the past nine months?

What if he remains that way, healthy, his previous training camps all marred by injury or having had to recover from offseason surgery heading into training camp?

And what if healthy, remaining healthy, Mo picks up where he left off at the beginning of last year's camp before the nagging injuries began piling up again, back when he began showing promising signs of what you'd expect from a sixth pick in the draft?

Man, wouldn't that be something.

OK, and I know, many of you think I'm dreaming or been hit over the head with a baseball bat, probably figuring it's high time for a much-needed vacation, and truthfully, it sure is.

But I'm just sayin.'

What if, because that would be six goods, potentially the deepest the Cowboys have been at cornerback since, well, a secondary that included Mel Renfro, Herb Adderly, Cornell Green, Charlie Waters and Cliff Harris. Or maybe during the 1985 season of Thurman's Thieves, which included Everson Walls, Ron Fellows, Dennis Thurman, Victor Scott, Dexter Clinkscales, Michael Downs and Bill Bates?

Because if so, a position once considered a huge liability for the Cowboys turns into a position of abnormal strength, a significant boost to this once-considered anemic defense that showed signs of rising from the ashes in 2014. Couple that with the real possibility of an improved pass rush, with or without Greg Hardy for 10 games, the grand total still in TBD status, along with the return of Sean Lee, Anthony Hitchens in his second season and Rolando McClain not 20 months removed from playing ball as he was last year when the middle linebacker showed up for training camp, and the Cowboys just might not have to score 30 points a game to secure victories.

Would be nice, wouldn't it, to win more than one game during a season when scoring no more than 20 points, as occurred last year? Or maybe not lose every game during the regular season (four) when scoring no more than 17 as also occurred last season? A jump from being the 32nd-ranked defense in 2013 to 19th in 2014 was great for sure. But, now how about the next step?[embeddedad0]

Linebacker looks good, solid, as presently stands. Even has developed some depth with the addition of such veterans as Jasper Brinkley, Andrew Gachkar and Keith Rivers.

Defensive line should be improved now that Tyrone Crawford has played his first full year at defensive tackle and isn't coming off the season-ending Achilles repair of 2013 as he was in training camp last summer, DeMarcus Lawrence isn't coming off PUP as he was last year after breaking his foot early in training camp, with the addition of second-round pick Randy Gregory at defensive end, Jeremy Mincey's weight much better – and lower – than it was the start of last season and at least the possibility of Hardy being available.

 Safety is just fine, with Barry Church, J.J. Wilcox now with at least one full NFL season of starting at safety, Jeff Heath, and the possibility of Jones and White rotating in to help.

That leaves corner, and to me Claiborne is the X-factor. Man, if he can play the way some in the organization still think he can play, and I'm not the lone wolf on this one, this unit would be strong.

"I think Claiborne has a real good chance to surprise," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said recently.

He's not being delusional or his overly-optimistic self.

Look, like we did, he saw how Claiborne was playing in training camp last summer before knee tendinitis and a shoulder injury cut into his preparation, all that before he tore his patellar tendon on Sept. 28 against the Saints, leading to not only season-ending surgery on his left knee during the first week of October, but also an early December surgery to head off potential problems with the patellar tendon in the other knee.

Look, he's a good kid. He works hard, real hard. He's not lazy one bit. He just needs to stay healthy. Just needs to gain some confidence, some of that swag he played with at LSU. Ya'll should be pulling for him instead of bashing him at every chance you get.

Listen.

"I was just waiting to get off the crutches, so I could get back to work," he says, knowing this process recovering from such a surgery is a long one, only having had to ask teammate Ryan Williams for proof.

Just listen.

So during the dual rehab, having been on crutches so long, how much weight did you lose in the process?

"Man, I got all the way down to 150," he said.

What? That's like losing 30 to 40 pounds?

"I've been fighting that, too," he said. "I'm all the way back to 172 now, and I'm getting closer to my playing weight of 180."

Continue to listen.

"Training staff wants me to take a little time off," he said after the final minicamp practice, "but I don't feel comfortable not working at this point. I want to be ready. Whatever it takes. I feel like if you want something you never had, you've got to do something you never done. And I'll do anything to get back to where I was, and past that."

Listen how pragmatic.

"Why would you put all your chips in someone you don't know if he's going to be ready to go," he said when asked if he was disappointed the Cowboys declined to pick up his fifth-year option for 2016 at the going rate of $11.8 million. "I wasn't expecting that. I don't want nothing handed to me. I want to earn it."

So we'll see. Mo says he'll be ready to go at the start of camp, nearly five weeks away. The way he has been moving, that sure seems a likely scenario.

And one last one.

"I plan on fighting 'til I can't fight no more," he says.

Good for him.

Good for the Cowboys.

Because as I've said, what if …

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