Draft speaks volumes about Cowboys' confidence for 2012

The Cowboys are never shy about expressing their feelings, and they will never be the NFL's wallflowers.

Yet heading into last week's draft, even they raised a few eyebrows by publicly proclaiming they had no gaping holes to fill. Even they triggered a double-take by saying they would simply take the best available player, even if it seemed like there was already a starter there. Then, by trading up eight spots to No. 6 to pick LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne, the Cowboys spoke even louder. The move signified a top-of-the-lungs yell:

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We're gonna be good!

Simple as that. A few positions to tinker with, no doubt, but no glaring weaknesses and no reason Dallas shouldn't be the NFC East team taking its season deep into the playoffs this year. That is what the Cowboys' weekend said.

Look at the way they drafted. The Cowboys behaved like a team that thinks it is one player away from a championship.

After the humbling, season-ending loss to the future Super Bowl champion Giants, one that left them at 8-8, owner Jerry Jones said, "We've just got to get better." Vice President Stephen Jones wondered whether they had enough talent on defense to win. Yet after selecting four other defensive players after Claiborne in the draft, and after adding several defensive starters in free agency, the Cowboys feel the necessary improvements had been made.

Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan described himself as "jacked" with the selection of Claiborne, and he's not alone.

Free agency helped Dallas believe it's on the cusp. The Cowboys landed big-ticket cornerback Brandon Carr, two possible starting guards in Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings, starting linebacker Dan Connor and key safety Brodney Pool, among others. The group replaced some forgettable parts, such as cornerback Terence Newman, linebackers Bradie James and Keith Brooking and safety Abram Elam.

And the Claiborne development, in itself, triggers optimism. But really, were the Cowboys only one player away entering the 2012 draft?

Sure, there are reasons to think they have lost their minds. When it counted last year, including in the finale against the G-Men, they crumbled. When quarterback Tony Romo has had the chance to own a moment, he too often gives it away. And even the cerebral Garrett bounded through some stumbling blocks in what should have been a smooth transition from coordinator to coach.

But that's not what they are seeing. Survey the Cowboys' landscape from their perspective.

They see a veteran quarterback poised to put doubters behind him, a re-worked secondary that suddenly can cover the elite pass catchers, a receiving corps that has a "Help Wanted" sign only over the No. 4 slot (not even No. 3). And in the second year of Rob Ryan's complex defense, they see increased efficiency coming.

And perhaps no comment more astutely illustrated their beliefs than this from assistant director of player personnel Tom Ciskowski: "Even if we (weren't) drafting today, we can go play tomorrow."

If you believe you have a stacked roster capable of taking a run into the playoffs, you trade away a second-round pick to move up eight spots to grab Claiborne. If you believe you are ready to join the NFL's elite, you don't mind giving up a likely starter (the second-rounder that could have been Utah State linebacker Bobby Wagner) to snag a player you believe to be a star who can take you over the edge. It's what the Falcons did last year in the Julio Jones trade. It's what the Cowboys did last week.

Armed with one of the NFL's most creative minds in Ryan, Dallas now thinks it has enough ammo on defense to go head-to-head with the defending champs, as well as the dangerous Eagles and rebuilding Redskins.

They view Claiborne as a player who will put them over the top, not only contributing with his coverage prowess but also making the rest of the unit better.

"When you have great rushers and great cover guys, it allows you to go out and play football on defense," Garrett said. "When you add that to the guys we have rushing the passer, they can go after the quarterback a bit more."

The Cowboys insist they don't expect Claiborne to be like Deion Sanders. No one could. But they do covet the contributions from a dynamic force on defense, similar to one that Rob's brother Rex enjoys with Darrelle Revis in New York. The possibilities are endless.

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"Corner is a premium position in the NFL and has been for a long, long time," Garrett said. "It gives you a lot of freedom to do things on defense. If you have a guy who can shut somebody down, and you have the confidence to stick him out there and say, 'Just cover him,' it gives you freedom to pressure and turn guys loose."

The addition of one player, they hope, will do all that. Claiborne will fit right into the lineup, and the goal is that he stays on the field every snap. He might be the only full-time starter they drafted.

Boise State linebacker Tyrone Crawford is a project as a five-technique defensive end. Wake Forest linebacker Kyle Wilber will become a sub-package pass rusher. Who knows what will become of Eastern Washington safety Matt Johnson. Tight end James Hanna is talented but raw, while Virginia Tech receiver Danny Coale could begin on special teams and see his role expand. Montana linebacker Caleb McSurdy is, for now, a special teamer.

Those are the draft picks of a team that believes it's solid and deep enough to withstand some misses for future hits. Those are the draft picks of a team that believes it will be really good in 2012.

"You got to have the entire football team committed to one objective and one goal and that's to win," Romo said last week.

The Cowboys think they are primed to do just that.

Follow Ian Rapoport on Twitter @rapsheet

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