When the Dallas Cowboys traded up in first round of the 2012 NFL Draft to select cornerback Morris Claiborne, they believed they had drafted a rare player who could develop into an all-pro much like Darrelle Revis of the New York Jets. The Cowboys traded their first and second round selections in 2012 for the former star cornerback from LSU. But after an up and down rookie year, what are the career expectations for Morris Claiborne as a Dallas Cowboy?
If you ignore the stats and just watch the film of his 2012 season, I think you will be quite impressed with Claiborne’s game. He started out the season strong and played a very good game against Hakeem Nicks in the Cowboys’ opener against the New York Giants. He didn’t produce the number of interceptions that the Dallas Cowboys were hoping for, but he didn’t give up many big plays either.
One physical attribute for a cornerback that isn’t talked about enough is arm length. A cornerback with long arms can knock away passes even when he is slightly out of position. A cornerback’s long arms can help create the perception that he is closer to the receiver than he actually is.
Morris Claiborne has some of the longest arms in the NFL today the the cornerback position. Below is a chart comparing arm lengths between different cornerbacks currently in the league.
|Morris Claiborne||5’11||188||33 1/4″|
|Darrelle Revis||5’11||204||32 3/8″|
Elite cornerbacks like Revis and Sherman rival Claiborne’s rare arm length. Claiborne has a three inch advantage in length compared to Prince Amukamara, a first round draft pick of the New York Giants in 2011.
Claiborne uses his exceptionally long arms very well. He loves to “punch” wide receivers at the line of scrimmage and get them off balance once the ball has been snapped. He also uses his long arms to knock away passes from receivers as they bring the ball into their body. Chicago Bear cornerback Charles Tillman became well known in 2012 because of the “Peanut Punch” where he would punch the ball away from the offensive player. Claiborne uses his length to wedge his arms between the receivers’ arms.
At 5’11, Claiborne is a little shorter than some of the conerbacks the NFL has seen lately, especially when compared to the tandem in Seattle (Richard Sherman 6’3 and Brandon Browner 6’4). But his size is considered average when compared to the rest of the league. Claiborne isn’t a blazer either, only running a 4.5 in the 40 yard dash, but he is an exceptionally fluid athlete. He has outstanding body control and can contort his body to make some incredible plays on the ball.
Before I talk about all the excellent things that Morris Claiborne does in coverage, let me get to the negatives. Because he is such a gifted athlete on the football field, sometimes he can get lazy with his technique when he believes his athleticism and length can bail him out. Claiborne also struggled this year with his press coverage mainly due to a wrist injury that prevented him from lifting weights all off-season. At times, he struggled with getting off wide receivers at the line of scrimmage because of his lack of strength in his wrist and arms. Going into 2013 without the wrist injury, he should be able to regain his strength and improve in press coverage.
The 2012 stats didn’t show it, but Claiborne’s ball skills are already at the top of the league. He plays the ball like a natural wide receiver and his head is always turned looking for the ball. He has soft hands and doesn’t fight the ball when trying to catch it. Claiborne does seem have a nose for the ball, as a rookie he returned a fumble for a touchdown and intercepted one pass.
Claiborne isn’t a strong tackler, but he is a willing tackler and there is a difference. He struggled with his tackling in the final game of the year against Washington, but that could have been blamed on a concussion that occurred a few weeks prior. He needs to learn to lower his pad level before he hits as sometimes he is too upright when trying to make a tackle.
To give an example of what Morris Claiborne’s exceptional arm length can do in the course of a play, I analyzed a play that potentially saved four points for the Cowboys. The play below occurred during the Cowboys second game against the New York Giants. On a 3rd & 10 in the first quarter, Eli Manning targets Hakeem Nicks (top of screen) on a back-shoulder fade against cornerback Morris Claiborne.
Claiborne is playing outside leverage on Nicks, meaning that he is allowing an outside pass instead of anything in the middle of the field. Claiborne also has help in the deep middle of the field so if Manning is going to complete a pass, it will have to be outside the numbers, near the side-line.
As Nicks’ left hand is catching the ball, Claiborne’s right hand is actually on the ball (The pink gloves make it hard to see but Nick’s right hand is outside of Claiborne’s).
Claiborne’s long arms allow him to sneak his hand between Nicks’ and enables him to knock the ball away.
The long arms and excellent athleticism make Morris Claiborne a special player in my mind. The interceptions weren’t there in 2012, but that doesn’t take away from how well he played during the season. If Morris Claiborne can continue to improve on his impressive rookie campaign, the Dallas Cowboys might be looking at the next shutdown cornerback in the NFL.