Entering the 2012 NFL Draft, it was widely believed the Dallas Cowboys would be addressing positions of need on the defensive side of the ball.
But few, if any, saw this coming.
Almost nobody outside the walls of the team’s facility in Valley Ranch anticipated the move the Cowboys made in the first round, when they traded their first- and second-round picks — the 14th and 45th overall selections — to the St. Louis Rams for the sixth overall pick, which they then used to select LSU’s Morris Claiborne, who is almost universally believed to be the top cornerback in this year’s draft.
Claiborne measured in at 5-11 and 188 pounds at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis. He ran a 4.5 in the 40-yard dash, jumped 34.5 inches in the vertical jump and 9 feet, 10 inches in the broad jump.
The Jim Thorpe Award winner as the nation’s top defensive back, Claiborne has good size but plays bigger, thanks to very long arms and excellent athleticism, which allows him to turn his hips and feet when shadowing receivers and accelerate quickly to make a play on the ball or deliver a hit on a receiver.
A starter for two of his three seasons in Baton Rouge, Claiborne not only is an exceptional cover corner but also is more physical than many realize. He is plenty strong to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage, and can deliver punishing hits on receivers or when coming up to play the run. In three seasons, he played in 33 games, collecting 95 tackles and 11 interceptions — including six in 2011 — on one of the elite defenses in the nation.
Some were surprised when Claiborne won the Thorpe Award, as he often was overshadowed by his gifted teammate in the LSU secondary, safety TyrannMathieu, who was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy. But it was Claiborne who usually took on the challenge of shadowing each opponent’s top receiver, and often took them right out of games.
For his accomplishments, Claiborne also was named to just about every All-America team and was named the Defensive Player of the Year in a Southeastern Conference that was loaded with elite defensive stars. He earned all-conference honors in each of his two seasons as a starter, being named to the conference’s Second Team in 2010 and First Team in 2011.
Claiborne has good enough hands that LSU — which annually recruits from among the most talented players in the nation — recruited him as a receiver before moving him to defense before his freshman season. He spent his career in Baton Rouge being compared to former LSU star (and current Arizona Cardinal) cornerback Patrick Peterson, who is probably a better overall athlete, but in his short time on defense, Claiborne has developed better cover skills.
What this means to the Dallas secondary is unclear. There are those who feel Claiborne’s ballhawk skills — thanks to rare body control that allows him to adjust to the ball even after he has left the ground — and physical play could allow him to slide over and play free safety, but it’s rare that a team would draft a player this high in order to move him to a new position.
Dallas already has big money tied up in new free agent Brandon Carr, and holdovers Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick. Jenkins is up for a new contract in a year, and now the team will have to pay first-round money to Claiborne, meaning someone might be on the way out.