In his first two seasons, Dallas Cowboys cornerback Morris Claiborne has certainly been a disappointment. But it’s too early, and there are too many extenuating circumstances, to give the 2012 first-round pick the worst label that you can affix to a former sixth overall pick: a bust.
Statistics can be incredibly misleading when used to judge a position like cornerback, but it would be a stretch to say that Claiborne’s two interceptions and single forced fumble in 22 career starts aren’t indicative of the true lack of production that has been a staple of Claiborne’s career, to this point. He simply hasn’t been the playmaker that Dallas thought it was getting when they traded with the St. Louis Rams (giving up their second round pick, as well) to nab the top-rated defensive player on their draft board.
That being said, the story of Morris Claiborne is far from being over, and he could be poised for a big year in 2014.
Claiborne’s biggest issue has been an inability to stay healthy. Honestly, I’m not sure if we’ve seen a truly healthy Morris Claiborne play an NFL game yet. He had wrist surgery in March of 2012 and sprained his right MCL that August, causing him to miss portions of camp. He still started 15 games, but on the stat sheet, only recorded one interception and had eight passes defended. Not exactly great, but most rookie cornerbacks will struggle, especially one who misses a large chunk of camp.
Most people expected him to bounce back in 2013, but more injuries, as well as a switch to an entirely different defensive scheme, held Claiborne back.
He missed the entire preseason with a knee sprain, and played in only 10 games during the season, with a hamstring keeping him out of the other 6. Outside of serious ligament tears or broken bones, those are arguably two of the worst injuries that a cornerback can suffer.
Playing the cornerback position, physically, is almost entirely about speed, quickness and the ability to change direction. Nagging injuries in your knee and hamstring, causing even the slightest decrease in any of those areas, will make even the best cornerbacks looks average.
But injuries might not have even been the biggest factor holding back Claiborne in 2013. Claiborne was the top-rated defensive player on many draft boards, and nearly unanimously the top-rated cornerback, because of his man-to-man coverage skills and physicality (his counterpart, the $50 million Brandon Carr, possesses much of the same skill set).
Despite having two high-priced corners (in terms of money and draft status) whose experience and skills are best utilized in a more physical, man-to-man defense, Dallas made the change to Monte Kiffin’s Tampa 2 defense in 2013.
The transition to a new defense, coupled with injuries that kept Claiborne out of a good portion of camp and pre-season as well as the regular season (limiting his ability to practice and learn the defense on the field), made 2013 a season to forget.
Although the injuries are concerning, and could ultimately be Claiborne’s downfall, if he can stay healthy (certainly a big if), Claiborne still has the ability to be the type of game-changing player that the Cowboys thought they were getting with the sixth overall pick.
Just because he’s better suited to play man-to-man doesn’t mean that he can’t also excel in a zone-heavy scheme. But to do so, he must be able to stay on the field, especially the practice field.
The best-case scenario for Claiborne is to finally have an injury-free camp, and enter the regular season healthy, with a full camp under his belt, leaving him with nothing to worry about except for making plays and regaining and sustaining his confidence (which, outside of physical skills, is probably the most important part of playing cornerback).
A lot of highly-touted defensive backs make “the jump” at some point in their second season. Claiborne never really had a fair shot to do that last year, so 2014 is setting up as a make-or-break type of season for him.
Don’t count Morris Claiborne out yet.