I was saying close to a year ago that the Dallas corners were not the biggest issue surrounding the Dallas Cowboys defense. I never argued that Terrence Newman was still a Pro Bowl-caliber cornerback or that an upgrade should not be made.
On the contrary, I did state immediately after the selection of rookie cornerback Morris Claiborne in last April’s draft that another failure to address the pass rush would translate into another failure of a season no matter how many new corners owner and general manager Jerry Jones decided to bring in.
Well, where do we sit right now?
The Cowboys don’t rush the passer well, defensive takeaways are low and obviously the offense is hampered by last season’s difficulties aside from keeping quarterback Tony Romo healthy—at least so far.
For all of his efforts and money spent, Jones has a total of one interception each from Claiborne and really, really expensive free agent corner Brandon Carr.
At least Carr scored a touchdown on his.
So what to make of Claiborne after eleven games?
Is he a hit?
Claiborne is what he is supposed to be—a rookie cornerback with starting potential.
I say potential because Claiborne hasn’t even finished his rookie season yet and he is clearly still in the learning curve. This is to be expected of any rookie that has to cover guys like Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald.
In addition to lacking technique, a prospect like Claiborne faces the task of covering receivers that are as many as five inches taller and possibly thirty pounds heavier. It really is a matter of learning the ropes when you’re matched up against Pro Bowl wide receivers that you’ve never covered before.
As I had hoped, Claiborne is starting to turn the corner, for lack of a better term. He’s hit some pot holes and there’s been some penalties but, for the most part, Claiborne has been about as solid as you can expect any rookie to be.
Now Peterson made a splash returning punts but definitely had his difficulties in man-to-man coverage.
Peterson picked off just two passes during his rookie campaign as compared to the four he has heading into week 13 this season.
All indicators are that Claiborne’s true value will start to show from this point forward and beyond. The NFL competition committee seems to think that we all need to see as much passing as possible and so cornerbacks are at a real premium. But when you factor in rule changes favoring wide receivers and also the physical mismatch several wideouts already have against any defensive back, it makes it pretty tough for a rookie to come in and make a big impact.
In other words, rookie cornerbacks do not come out of college striking fear into opposing quarterbacks the way Deion Sanders once did. Prime Time forced just about all passers to quit throwing towards him by his second season. The eminent disaster often associated with doing so just made it necessary.
But no more.
Claiborne could be a Pro Bowl defensive back soon but not this year and possibly not even next.
What holds the Dallas defense back is not cornerbacks. It wasn’t before and it isn’t now.
As recently as two years ago I was campaigning for Dallas to draft Robert Quinn out of North Carolina—Quinn has 8.5 sacks as of now—so the Cowboys could get better pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
But these benefits are not coming this year, so realize that the deck is stacked against rookies like Claiborne, Peterson and other top flight corners from college that find life much more difficult in the pros. Then again, Claiborne will be a beast once Dallas has a more dominant pass rush and can also stop the run a little better.
But for now, Claiborne has been fine, and his physical play against the run and his tackling ability have shown to be top notch. Claiborne reacts quickly and, as he has to think less and react more, he’ll make bigger and bigger plays.
What should make Dallas fans happy is that Claiborne shows the likelihood of passing Carr sometime next year as the top cornerback on the roster. This would be a best case scenario but also one that doesn’t automatically translate into wins.
What Claiborne really needs is a pass rush and a lead, much like he had in college at LSU.