Trendy Dallas Cowboys gain edge on defense in draft

IRVING -- The Dallas Cowboys opened the 2012 NFL Draft on Thursday with a bold move to improve on defense.

But the blockbuster trade in which they gave up their second-round pick and moved from 14th to sixth in the first round to take LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne was not just an initial salvo. It was their focus for the entire draft.

Five of the seven overall picks were defensive players, including four consecutive to open the draft in the first, third, and fourth rounds.

Wake Forest linebacker Kyle Wilber and Eastern Washington safety Matt Johnson were taken in the fourth round on Saturday after Boise State defensive end Tyrone Crawford was picked in the third round as their lone pick on Friday.

The Cowboys added Virginia Tech receiver Danny Coale in the fifth round and Oklahoma tight end James Hanna, a Flower Mound native, in the sixth round before fittingly closing the draft with Montana linebacker Caleb McSurdy.

This was the first time they took four consecutive defenders to open the draft since 1982, when the Cowboys used the first five picks on defensive players.

The Cowboys finished 14th in total defense and were 23rd against the pass last season. But they blew five games in 2011 when they had fourth-quarter leads, including an NFL-record three leads of 12 points of more

Shoring up the defense, especially the pass defense, was a must.

"[Defensive coordinator] Rob Ryan was lying in front of the train looking [upset] 'cause he didn't get the other two," owner Jerry Jones joked. "Seriously, our defensive guys are pleased in what we have here in terms of helping our defense."

Ryan walked out of the Cowboys' war room after the fourth round and joked, "When does the offensive draft start?"

Jones said what the Cowboys did in the draft, combined with what they did in free agency, has resulted in a team much improved from the 8-8 squad that missed the playoffs by one game last season.

Jones already felt the Cowboys could win at least nine games in 2012 and try to duplicate the New York Giants' magical run to last season's Super Bowl.

Now he feels even stronger about that position.

"I honor and respect the Giants, but I thought we could have won nine games with this team [last year]," Jones said. "And if we could win nine, then maybe we could have the same run as the Giants had. That's where I thought we were then. I think we are better now. Certainly, we are better with what we did in free agency. After the draft, we are better all the way round."

Claiborne, who the Cowboys say has Deion Sanders-like playmaking skills and was ranked as the best defender in the draft, will have an immediate impact.

Crawford and Wilbur could also find immediate roles in the regular lineup as situational players.

Coach Jason Garrett said all the picks have a chance to be every-down players in the future but have the makeup to be special-teams options now.

Garrett stressed that all the picks have the physical attributes to play their positions and have the intangibles of being hard workers and overachievers.

"Why do we think that's so important?" Garrett said. "We feel like it allows them all to achieve to their potential, and our experience has been when you have guys on your football team like that, you practice better and you play better, and it's infectious."

Clarence E. Hill Jr.


Twitter: @clarencehilljr

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram