Morris Claiborne Could Be a Bust of Epic Proportions in Dallas

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistJanuary 21, 2014

USA Today

The term "bust" is as subjective as any, but there has to be no doubt that Dallas Cowboys cornerback Morris Claiborne is flirting with bust status two seasons into his NFL career. 

It's surprising how much Claiborne has flown under the radar in two respects.

First, he's hardly been noticeable on the field, with just two interceptions and a forced fumble in 22 starts and 25 appearances. 

But he's also avoided the national scrutiny that you'd expect when the draft's highest-rated defensive player fails to deliver in back-to-back seasons with America's most popular football team. 

Maybe that's because Claiborne is only 23 years old and has been hampered by injuries for a large chunk of his career thus far. Or maybe it's because we cut cornerbacks more slack early in their careers, what with the modern game being so slanted toward offense. Or maybe it's because he's simply been out of sight, out of mind.

Regardless, 2014 could very well be a make-or-break year for the LSU Tigers product. 

I mean, consider what the Cowboys gave up for the guy. In order to move up eight spots to draft Claiborne, Dallas surrendered its second-round pick to the St. Louis Rams. In other words, its top two picks of the 2012 draft were sacrificed in order to make Claiborne a Cowboy.  

Unfortunately, thus far, he's been a limping Cowboy more often than not.

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The many injuries of Morris Claiborne
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

Claiborne missed pretty much his entire first offseason with Dallas before sitting out a pair of preseason games, so rust was a factor during his rookie campaign. But 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 all hamstring. Last year, it was a concussion...and a shoulder...and a knee. He missed organized team activities last year after undergoing predraft wrist surgery, and he's already managed to suffer sprains in each of his knees. 

But even when he's been "healthy," Claiborne hasn't been good. He temporarily lost his starting spot early in 2013 because he was getting beaten too often and was being outplayed by veteran nickel man Orlando Scandrick. 

Again, you're sort of supposed to struggle as a rookie cornerback in the NFL. But the draft's top two corners from the year prior—Patrick Peterson and Prince Amukamara—flourished as sophomores after enduring growing pains in 2011. And the next-best cover man from Claiborne's draft class, Stephon Gilmore of the Buffalo Bills, really came into his own down the stretch in 2013. 

Claiborne continued to have problems. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) ranked him 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. He gave up seven catches on eight targets in Week 4 in San Diego and six on seven three weeks later in Philadelphia. 

That game against the Eagles was probably Dallas' best of the year as a defense, and yet Claiborne was still abused time and again by Riley Cooper. We already broke down the tape of some of his struggles against the Chargers here, but it was just as ugly against a struggling Eagles offense as we approached midseason. 

Facing Cooper and rookie third-string quarterback Matt Barkley, Claiborne gave up three consecutive fourth-quarter completions for first downs. Sure, the Cowboys were playing it a bit conservatively on D with a two-score lead, but he was just making it too easy on Barkley.

Here, for example, he knows Cooper is going to run a fly or post route when he gets as deep as he does... 

NFL Game Pass

But he's still too slow adjusting to that cut...

NFL Game Pass

The same thing happened later in the quarter...

NFL Game Pass

In fact, it happened over and over again in San Diego, Philly and elsewhere. You can't let this happen against Hakeem Nicks in the opener...

NFL Game Pass

Notice that there's always too much pad, especially when there's almost always safety help in that scheme? NFL quarterbacks will take that all day, and it may indicate Claiborne just isn't playing with enough confidence. 

He blamed a lot of those problems on the difficult transition to Monte Kiffin's zone-heavy scheme, but how much rope can we give the guy? For better or for worse, Kiffin is sticking around, which means he won't have to get acclimated to anything new or extreme in 2014.

And if injuries have been the primary culprit, at some point you have to wonder—as former Cowboy Darren Woodson did prior to the season—if the guy has legitimate durability issues at the pro level. 

"I think it's time for the injury thing to leave the scene," said Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones on Sept. 30 on KRLD-FM in Dallas, per Calvin Watkins of ESPN Dallas, before Claiborne went down for six weeks with a hamstring injury. "He needs to step up and make plays." 

He had zero picks and four passes defensed the rest of the year. 

Who Dallas could have had instead of Morris Claiborne
Bruce Irvin and Alshon Jeffery15th and 45th
Luke Kuechly9th
Chandler Jones and Bobby Wagner21st and 47th

Is his confidence shot? His own head coach suggested it had taken a hit when he was struggling early this season, and things have gotten worse since. And it's not easy to be a cornerback on islands in this league without possessing supreme confidence. 

That doesn't mean he can't recover, but Claiborne is running out of time. 

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