Commentary

Morris Claiborne in tough position

Cornerback is difficult job for a rookie, but Cowboys need top pick to produce

Updated: June 13, 2012, 8:27 PM ET
By Calvin Watkins | ESPNDallas.com

IRVING, Texas -- Playing cornerback in the NFL isn't easy.

Cornerbacks are challenged by fast and physical receivers and quarterbacks getting rid of the ball after a three-step drop.

What makes it harder is that corners have to defend while moving backward and sometimes they might not have a safety protecting them deep.

Corner is one of those positions that's hard already. You already at a disadvantage. You running backwards and everybody else is running forwards.

-- Cowboys cornerback Morris Claiborne

It's not easy. Never is.

For a rookie cornerback, it might be impossible at times.

Three cornerbacks were drafted in the first round last season and had uneven results.

Arizona's Patrick Peterson, the fifth overall pick, had only two interceptions but he was remembered more for his punt returning than anything else.

Prince Amukamara, the 19th overall selection by the New York Giants, struggled through a foot injury and had only one interception.

Jimmy Smith, the 27th overall pick by Baltimore, had two picks and eight pass breakups. He did have a pick in the postseason.

In April, the Cowboys traded up from No. 14 to No. 6 and selected the best corner in the draft in LSU's Morris Claiborne.

He hasn't practiced yet while recovering from wrist surgery, but most everyone associated with the team at Valley Ranch believes Claiborne will become a shutdown corner.

As the experience of last year's top rookie corners show, it might not be easy.

[+] EnlargeMorris Claiborne
AP Photo/James D SmithThe Cowboys completed an overhaul of their cornerbacks corps by trading up to No. 6 to draft Morris Claiborne.

However, someone with expertise offers a different opinion.

"A lot of corners have come into this league and done it from Day 1," Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said. "Is it an easy spot? No. But your physical ability is going to help you play corner in this league faster than, say, inside linebacker."

The Cowboys have joined other NFL teams in making cornerback a premium position.

In 2010 and '11, a total of eight corners were drafted in the first round. The Cowboys had to upgrade this position following a season during which they used five cornerbacks, three of whom (Terence Newman, Frank Walker and Alan Ball) are no longer with the team.

In addition to drafting Claiborne, the Cowboys signed cornerback Brandon Carr to a five-year $50.1 million free-agent deal. Despite some interest, they have refused to trade Mike Jenkins, who enters the final year of his contract and is coming off shoulder surgery.

The Cowboys value Jenkins so much because he has been to a Pro Bowl (in 2009) and he was the lone bright spot last year during a season when the secondary struggled.

Add Claiborne, to whom the Cowboys scouts gave the highest grade at his position since Deion Sanders, and the cornerback position has been improved.

Of course, the Cowboys also have Orlando Scandrick, a slot corner, trying to respond with a better 2012 than 2011.

All of this isn't lost on Claiborne, who knows he was one of just two players, Andrew Luck being the other, for whom the Cowboys were willing to trade up to get. There will be pressure on Claiborne either as the No. 3 corner or a starter to produce.

And produce at a difficult spot.

"Corner is one of those positions that's hard already. You already at a disadvantage," Claiborne said. "[You're] running backwards and everybody else is running forwards. I believe it's a transition coming from college to the NFL and playing that position. That's kind of tough."

This is an offseason in which the Cowboys needed to upgrade several positions. You could say cornerback was at the top of the list given how badly that unit played last season. Ryan said the secondary lost its confidence toward the end of the 2011 season. That was clear in how badly the veteran Newman played in the last month of the season.

The money spent on Carr and the move made in the draft demonstrate the Cowboys don't want any of their players going through that again.

But there are no guarantees Claiborne will become a shutdown corner. He has the skills to become one, but he's a rookie.

A man who has knowledge about these things believes Claiborne will be fine.

"I think corners can come [in] quick in the NFL," Ryan said. "Just like a receiver can."

Calvin Watkins joined ESPNDallas.com in September 2009. He's covered the Cowboys since 2006 and also has covered colleges, boxing and high school sports.

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