The Dallas Cowboys have been strapped for salary-cap space for several years running, yet Dallas has stayed competitive thanks partially to some solid drafting. Recent early picks Travis Frederick, Terrance Williams, Tyron Smith, Bruce Carter, DeMarco Murray, Dez Bryant and Sean Lee have panned out, which is why the Cowboys haven't faded despite being primarily on the sideline during free agency.
But one potentially large draft mistake is beginning to stand out like a sore thumb, because the 'Boys technically sacrificed their first two selections of the 2012 draft in order to land former LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne, who has been a tremendous disappointment thus far in his career.
Despite the fact the Cowboys traded a second-round pick in order to move up eight spots to take him sixth overall, Claiborne has just two interceptions in 22 starts and 25 games two years into his career. Last season, he was so shaky early that he was benched in favor of veteran Orlando Scandrick, who never gave that starting job back.
So what does the 24-year-old have to do to shed that looming bust label?
He'll have to start by winning his starting job back.
When you're supposed to be the best defensive player in your draft class, you're an automatic bust if you aren't a trusted starter by the time you've completed your third season. So if Claiborne can't perform well enough this year to regain his starting spot opposite Brandon Carr, he'll deservedly be viewed as a bust.
|First defensive player chosen, recent drafts|
|2013||Dion Jordan||Too early to tell|
|2012||Morris Claiborne||Nickel corner|
|2011||Von Miller||Pro Bowler|
|2010||Ndamukong Suh||Pro Bowler|
|2009||Tyson Jackson||Reliable starter|
|2008||Chris Long||Pro Bowl-caliber starter|
|Pro Football Reference|
Nickel corners are quite valuable nowadays, especially in this division, but you don't draft those guys in the first round.
Thus, he has to stay healthy.
Claiborne wasn't on the practice field when the Cowboys started organized team activities this week because he's being eased back after undergoing surgeries on his left shoulder and pinkie finger earlier in the offseason.
But that's nothing new.
|Morris Claiborne's many injuries|
|Wrist surgery||March, 2012||Missed OTAs|
|Right MCL sprain||August, 2012||Missed large chunk of camp|
|Concussion||December, 2012||Missed Week 15 vs. Steelers|
|Left knee sprain||August, 2013||Missed entire preseason|
|Hamstring||November, 2013||Missed six games|
|Left shoulder||May, 2014||Missing start of OTAs|
|Pinkie||May, 2014||Missing start of OTAs|
Claiborne missed pretty much his entire first NFL offseason before sitting out a pair of preseason games. Then he was forced to sit out the vast majority of offseason workouts yet again in 2013 before missing six regular-season games due to injury.
This year, it was hamstring and shoulder. Last year, it was a concussion, shoulder and a knee. He missed organized team activities as a rookie after undergoing predraft wrist surgery, and he's already managed to suffer sprains in each of his knees.
Injuries can't be used an excuse for three straight years. At some point, even if it's not totally performance-related, you're still a bust. Claiborne has to prove this fall that he isn't injury-prone.
He must improve in coverage, regardless of scheme.
On the surface, that seems obvious and simplistic, but the reality is simply that Claiborne hasn't looked like a capable starting NFL corner, even when healthy.
In 2013, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) ranked Claiborne 90th among 110 qualifying corners. He was beaten for an average of 16.6 yards per catch, which was the seventh-highest rate in the NFL.
We studied tape from the entire 2013 season, and it's clear the kid is lacking something. He's a hell of a natural athlete with superb technique, but Claiborne has to be more intuitive. You can't be this slow adjusting to cuts on slants like the one Hakeem Nicks easily beat him on here:
I know the scheme hasn't been easy on Claiborne. He's had four defensive coordinators in each of his last four seasons of football. But that took place in man coverage, and it became a trend throughout his second year.
It didn't help, though, that he also appears lost all too often in zone. An example from an ugly beat against Rueben Randle:
One of the toughest parts about transitioning from college to the NFL is that you can no longer get by on sheer talent or physical ability. Claiborne has to work on the cerebral aspect of cornerback play and learn how to better anticipate routes. Otherwise, he'll never be someone Dallas can count on in big moments.
And he has to take more chances.
DeAngelo Hall never mastered that route-anticipation aspect of being an NFL cornerback, but he's had a long and successful career because he's taken advantage of his physical skills in order to become a playmaker who forces turnovers often.
That's something the 'Boys are going to need from Claiborne, regardless of whether he becomes a shutdown cover man.
Thus far in his career, Claiborne has shied away from taking big chances. He looks as though he's lacking confidence, which is something his own head coach suggested back in September. He leaves too much pad, which makes it easy for opposing offenses to move take advantage with shorter routes.
An example against Vincent Brown and the Chargers:
Claiborne has just two picks thus far in his career, which isn't cool. And both were on the opposing quarterback:
The Cowboys lost two of their best defensive players this offseason, placing more pressure on a unit that surrendered a league-high 6,645 yards last year. They need to have top players like Claiborne taking chances and intercepting passes in order to atone for their shortfalls across the board, especially if Sean Lee is forced to miss the season due to injury.
But he also needs more help.
Again, no DeMarcus Ware or Jason Hatcher. And maybe no Lee or Anthony Spencer. This defense has stunk each of the last two seasons and doesn't look as though it'll be much better in 2014. If the defensive front isn't getting pressure on a consistent basis, it'll be very difficult for Claiborne to get comfortable and regain his confidence.
It hasn't helped that Claiborne went from a press-man-oriented, aggressive scheme under Rob Ryan to a zone-heavy scheme under Monte Kiffin. Rod Marinelli takes over that D now, but he shares Kiffin's zone-oriented background.
Claiborne isn't an ideal fit for that system, but elite players are supposed to be capable of adjusting in these scenarios. He's got to be more versatile now that he has a year under his belt learning zone principles.
On the bright side, a confident Carr suggested earlier this month that they'd be going back to a lot of man coverage under Marinelli, which is why there's reason for optimism right now.
But now, there's a new coordinator and new players up front. This defense, which ranked 30th against the pass, can significantly improve in 2014, but Claiborne has to take that next step. I expect it to happen.
This is the year.
It's make or break now. Claiborne has bulked up, per ESPN.com, and he also seems to believe he's about to turn a corner.
“The sky is the limit,” Claiborne said this week, according to ESPN's Tim MacMahon . “I’ve got big dreams. Where my mind is for this season, it’s really unbelievable. I’d rather not talk about it. I’d rather just show.”
Ultimately, he'll have to show this season that he isn't just good enough to start, but also capable of being relied upon in the fourth quarter of close games. And if he's truly going to shed the bust label, he'll also have to come up big and make some clutch plays in those moments.