Commentary

Cowboys need high picks to deliver

First-rounders must develop into stars for Dallas to break cycle of mediocrity

Updated: June 5, 2012, 11:03 AM ET
By Jean-Jacques Taylor | ESPNDallas.com

IRVING, Texas -- Cornerback Morris Claiborne must play to his pedigree -- the best defensive player in the 2012 NFL draft -- if Jason Garrett is going to eventually make the Dallas Cowboys a consistent contender.

The same is true of left tackle Tyron Smith, the Cowboys' 2011 first-round pick.

If you want an example, among many, of why the Cowboys have been stuck in the abyss of mediocrity since the 1997 season, look no further than the overall performances of their first-round draft picks since 2005.

[+] EnlargeMorris Claiborne
AP Photo/James D SmithThe Cowboys need cornerback Morris Claiborne to live up to his reputation as the top defensive player in this year's draft.

Understand, first-round picks -- whether they're selected early in the round or late -- are supposed to be the foundation of any team. They're supposed to be the best players. They're the leaders, the playmakers.

They're the guys Jerry Jones should want to shower with cash.

Earlier in this millennium, those were the types of players the Cowboys drafted.

Say what you will, safety Roy Williams (2002) started 95 of 98 games and played in six Pro Bowls. Terence Newman (2003) started 131 games in nine seasons and played in two Pro Bowls.

DeMarcus Ware (2005) will be enshrined into the Hall of Fame one day, and Marcus Spears (also in '05) has been solid, though unspectacular, while starting 83 games.

Since then? Blah.

Bobby Carpenter, who started just three games in four seasons, is the only true bust. The others -- Anthony Spencer, Mike Jenkins and Felix Jones -- have been OK.

They've each had good seasons and outstanding performances in individual games, but they haven't been difference makers.

We all know it.

And that's why none have received a long-term contract extension from the Cowboys like Ware and Spears have.

The Cowboys put the franchise tag on Spencer, which means he'll earn $8.8 million this season, but that's more the result of the Cowboys not having another viable option at strongside linebacker as opposed to their love of Spencer, no matter how they spin it.

If the Cowboys truly loved Spencer, he'd already have a deal done. Think about it: The next time Jerry Jones doesn't pay a productive first-round player will be the first.

[+] EnlargeDeMarcus Ware
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesOutside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, drafted in 2005, is the last first-round pick by the Cowboys to develop into a perennial Pro Bowler.

In fact, Jenkins has been skipping the voluntary offseason practices sessions, in part, because he's mad, frustrated or disappointed that he hasn't received a long-term deal yet.

No one thinks Felix Jones, the epitome of a niche player, is getting a big-time deal from the Cowboys when his contract expires.

Bryant still has three years left on his original contract, but we don't know if he'll get a second contract with the Cowboys.

It's too early.

While Bryant has made some memorable plays, he has also had a litany of off-the-field issues. None lately.

Now do you see why it's imperative for Smith and Claiborne to become perennial Pro Bowl players?

This team desperately needs playmakers, guys who make plays at winning time, especially at key spots such as cornerback and left tackle.

Ware, Tony Romo, Jason Witten and Jay Ratliff are the Cowboys' best four players, but each will hit his 30s before the season ends.

The next wave of stars -- not good players or average players -- must emerge. Otherwise, the next 15 years won't be much different than the last 15 years for the Cowboys.

In case you didn't know, Dallas is 120-120 and without consecutive 10-win seasons since 1997. The Cowboys made the playoffs just six times and have won only one playoff game.

Thirteen teams have played in the NFC championship game since the Cowboys' last appearance in 1995. Only Washington and Detroit have experienced longer droughts.

Eleven teams have appeared in the NFC championship game at least twice in that time, which should put the Cowboys' futility in perspective.

You win with stars.

It was that way for the Cowboys in the '70s, when first-round picks such as Tony Dorsett, Randy White, Lee Roy Jordan, Too Tall Jones, and Bob Lilly helped the Cowboys win two titles.

And it was that way in the '90s, when first-round picks such as Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, Kevin Smith and Russell Maryland helped the Cowboys become the first team to win three Super Bowls in four seasons.

Until these Cowboys get consistently dominant play from their first-round draft picks, this team will continue struggling to win at the NFL's highest level.

Jean-Jacques Taylor joined ESPNDallas.com in August 2011. A native of Dallas, Taylor spent the past 20 years writing for The Dallas Morning News, where he covered high schools sports, the Texas Rangers and spent 11 seasons covering the Dallas Cowboys before becoming a general columnist in 2006.