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Morris Claiborne and the Tampa-2 scheme

4/26/2012

There are some genuine reasons to believe the Minnesota Vikings would seriously consider selecting LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne. The most obvious was the Vikings' historically poor pass defense last season, along with the national consensus that Claiborne is the best cornerback in the draft.

But there are just as many reasons to be suspicious of the sudden league-wide uncertainty about the Vikings' intent, which for months we assumed to be either a trade or the selection of USC left tackle Matt Kalil. It coincides with the very public efforts of Vikings general manager (Crazy) Rick Spielman to create that very impression. Based on individual team needs, it's more likely that a team in the top 5-8 would trade up for Claiborne, or possibly Oklahoma receiver Justin Blackmon or Alabama running back Trent Richardson, than Kalil.

From a football perspective, some people are shaking their heads and wondering why a team whose base defense includes more zone coverage than anything else would spend the No. 3 overall pick on a cornerback. As conventional wisdom goes, individual coverage skills aren't as valuable when not employed in man/press coverage. Thus, you can get cornerbacks to play in a Cover-2 scheme lower in the draft than if you plan to use them in man coverage.

The Vikings have based their scheme on the Tampa-2 framework since 2006, when Mike Tomlin took over as defensive coordinator. Current coach Leslie Frazier, who like Tomlin is a protégé of modern-day Tampa-2 linchpin Tony Dungy, maintained continuity when he replaced Tomlin in 2007.

The goal of the scheme is to find elite pass-rushers to create havoc among the front four and allow the remaining seven players to flood the coverage zones. As a result, teams that use the Tampa-2 framework don't often pursue cornerbacks in the first round.

The Indianapolis Colts selected cornerbacks Marlin Jackson and Kelvin Hayden with their first two picks of the 2005 draft when Dungy was the coach there. In 2008, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected cornerback Aqib Talib and the Buffalo Bills selected Leodis McKelvin.

Those picks were the exceptions to the rule, and none of the cornerbacks were taken in the top 10.

Spielman said this week that the Vikings aren't a pure zone team, which is true. No NFL team could get away with a single form of coverage for 16 games. ESPN Stats & Information doesn't track coverages, and it is almost impossible to do accurately without help from someone who knew the exact play call on every play.

But considering Frazier's roots with Dungy, and a similar history of new defensive coordinator Alan Williams, it would be fair to say the Vikings' coaching staff has a strong background in zone coverage. That doesn't mean the Vikings won't, or shouldn't, draft Claiborne. But it means that one way or the other, changes would be afoot if they do.

If you have a player as talented as Claiborne in coverage, it makes sense to use more man/press coverage than the Vikings have used in the past. And if that's an issue for the coaching staff, you wonder if drafting Claiborne would further shake the ground under Frazier.

We've already noted the unique position Frazier finds himself in entering a rebuilding process in his second full year as head coach. Would a commitment to an elite cover corner mean that Spielman isn't expecting his Tampa-2 coach to be around much longer? It's a question worth asking. We'll know if it's even relevant in a few hours. Stay tuned.