With Scandrick Suspended, It's Now or Never for Morris Claiborne in Dallas

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistAugust 12, 2014

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At this point, it feels like the Dallas Cowboys defense is cursed. The league's lowest-ranked unit last season has lost arguably its three best players to either free agency or injury, while key cogs such as Henry Melton, Anthony Spencer and Morris Claiborne have been absent thus far in the preseason for health reasons. 

Now, they'll also be forced to start the 2014 regular season without the only qualifying cornerback on their roster who earned a positive grade from Pro Football Focus (subscription required) last season, as Orlando Scandrick has been suspended four games for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy, per ESPN

But while the Cowboys have had to get super creative to fill holes in the front seven, the reality is that they have some depth and a lot of talent in the secondary. This means it's officially time for Claiborne to do what he was drafted to do. 

The 'Boys technically sacrificed their first two selections of the 2012 draft in order to land Claiborne, which at the time wasn't seen as outlandish because most considered the former LSU cornerback to be the best defensive player in that class. But he's been a tremendous disappointment thus far in his career.

Despite the fact that 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. Last season, he was so shaky early that he was benched in favor of the veteran Scandrick, who never gave that starting job back.

There was a chance Claiborne was going to beat out Scandrick and start alongside the highly paid Brandon Carr regardless, but Scandrick was an insurance policy.

And based on the fact that Claiborne missed the team's preseason opener due to a knee injury—the third consecutive year in which the injury-prone 24-year-old has been forced to sit out that game—Scandrick was undoubtedly on track to serve in a starting role come Week 1 of the regular season. 

Scandrick vs. Claiborne, 2013
StartsINT/sacksPFF gradePasses defensed
Pro Football Focus

That won't be the case now, which means it'll have to be Carr, Claiborne, career reserve Sterling Moore and a bunch of dudes most of us have never heard of when the Cowboys take on San Francisco, Tennessee, St. Louis and New Orleans during the month of September.

Colin Kaepernick and Drew Brees are doing their best Montgomery Burns impressions.

And for good reason. PFF graded Scandrick as the 15th-best cornerback in the league in coverage, and he had stellar performances against Pro Bowl receivers like DeSean Jackson and Victor Cruz. He was a captain for the team's preseason opener, and as ESPN.com's Todd Archer points out, he's a scrappy playmaker on a defense that lacks those types of players. 

Scandrick was the Cowboys' best cornerback in 2013. He had a career-high two interceptions last year. He had two sacks. He has had a strong training camp, but that is nothing new for him. On Sunday he tested Dez Bryant so much in practice that Bryant lost his composure and the two got into a brief tussle. He also came up with a big hit on a reverse to wide receiver Dwayne Harris.

Meanwhile, PFF ranked Claiborne 89th 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. He once again struggled to stay healthy, but when he was on the field, he was abused all too often in coverage. 

In Claiborne's defense, it ain't easy for young corners to adjust to speedy NFL offenses in this high-octane era, and he's been forced to work with four defensive coordinators in each of his last four seasons of football. Plus, he's always been hurt. 

Morris Claiborne's Many Injuries
Wrist surgeryMarch 2012Missed OTAs
Right MCL sprainAugust 2012Missed large chunk of camp
ConcussionDecember 2012Missed Week 15 vs. Steelers
Left knee sprainAugust 2013Missed entire preseason
HamstringNovember 2013Missed six games
Left shoulderMay 2014Missed start of OTAs
PinkieMay 2014Missed start of OTAs
Right knee tendinitisAugust 2014Missed start of preseason

But the defensive scheme won't be changing dramatically this year, and injuries can't be used as an excuse much longer. He's bulked up, per ESPN.com's Calvin Watkins, and during organized team activities, he was talking a big game. 

“The sky is the limit,” Claiborne said then, 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.”

Now it's time for him to back that up.

If he can't, this team—which already had a historically bad defensewill be in big trouble, and Claiborne will be back on the bench come Oct. 5, moving closer to earning a permanent bust label. 


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