Commentary

Be patient with Morris Claiborne

Despite hype (ahem, Jerry Jones), expectations for rookie CB should be tempered

Updated: August 23, 2012, 3:08 PM ET
By Tim MacMahon | ESPNDallas.com

Dial back the expectations for the best cornerback since Deion Sanders, at least for one season.

[+] EnlargeMorris Claiborne
AP Photo/James D SmithCornerback Morris Claiborne has elite skills, but that doesn't mean he won't endure some ups and down in his rookie season.

Of course, that toast was probably burnt the moment Jerry Jones boasted to anybody who would listen that the Dallas Cowboys had given Morris Claiborne a higher draft grade than any corner since Prime Time.

Kind of makes you wonder whether Cowboys scouts saw any Michigan games the year Charles Woodson won the Heisman Trophy, huh? Maybe it was just Jerry's justification for packaging his first two picks to move up to sixth overall to draft Claiborne. Or perhaps it was just Jerry doing what he does best -- creating hype.

Not that the Cowboys aren't truly in love with Claiborne. There's no question they envision him developing into an elite player at a premier position.

Right now, though, they need to make sure Claiborne is buckled up for what will almost certainly be a roller coaster rookie season.

That's not a knock on Claiborne, whose credentials include the Thorpe Award and an SEC Defensive Player of the Year honor. It's just NFL reality for rookie cornerbacks.

It doesn't matter how high they're drafted. Rookie corners tend to struggle, especially if they start right away.

That's not news to Claiborne. He saw it happen last season with Patrick Peterson, his LSU teammate who was drafted fifth overall by the Arizona Cardinals.

While Peterson was historically spectacular as a punt returner, he got picked on a lot as a corner, especially early in the season. Claiborne has had several conversations with his buddy about the tough transition from SEC to NFL.

"He pretty much told me you're going to have your ups and downs," Claiborne said. "Guys are going to catch balls on you. You've just got to have a short-term memory, wipe that out and go back and don't let that happen again. Learn from your mistakes."

Claiborne has already had a lot of learning opportunities despite missing all of offseason workouts (wrist surgery) and a week of training camp (sprained MCL in his left knee).

Ryan He's a smart kid. He works hard. Will he have some growing pains? I'm sure he will.

-- Cowboys defensive coordinator
Rob Ryan on Morris Claiborne

Dez Bryant dominated his matchups against Claiborne. Granted, there aren't many corners in the NFL who can defend Bryant without help when No. 88 knows what he's doing.

But the list of receivers who have cruised past Claiborne for big plays includes guys fighting for spots on the bottom of the roster or practice squad, such as Cole Beasley, Dwayne Harris, Tim Benford and Raymond Radway.

"We're coaching him hard," defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said. "He's a smart kid. He works hard. Will he have some growing pains? I'm sure he will."

Again, almost all rookie corners do, no matter how high they were picked. The Football Outsiders Almanac 2012 provides painstaking proof, printing an advanced statistical study of first-round corners' rookie seasons since 2005. The results, for the most part, ranged from mediocre to miserable, with even Darrelle Revis falling closer to the latter. Hey, it takes time for an island to form.

Searching for a silver lining? The notable exception in the study was Cleveland's Joe Haden, who was coached by Ryan and new Dallas secondary coach Jerome Henderson as a rookie.

Ask Ryan about Haden and he'll give the humble Henderson a heck of a lot of credit for getting a rookie corner ready to compete. Ryan also admits one mistake: Haden didn't start right away.

The Cowboys are going to let Claiborne learn on the job. Claiborne, who admitted he was surprised that the San Diego Chargers didn't test him more in his preseason debut, understands that most teams would rather try to pick on a rookie than challenge $50 million man Brandon Carr.

The hope is that Claiborne's rare athleticism and ball skills will allow him to at least make enough big plays to balance out the ones he gives up.

"Hopefully he makes enough of those plays so that as a quarterback, you look back there and say, 'Eh, I don't really know if I want to keep messing (with) this guy. He's pretty good,'" Henderson said.

The key: "Just stay confident," Claiborne said.

He's right. It's really that simple.

If Claiborne keeps his head up, even if Hakeem Nicks beats him deep for the world to see on the first snap of the season, Henderson can teach him the technique it'll take to transfer elite talent into Pro Bowl production in time. A confident Claiborne can be an asset to the Cowboys as a rookie, particularly if he progressively improves and peaks late in the season.

If Claiborne's chin drops, it doesn't matter what the coaches do. He'll turn into a Terence Newman-in-December type of target.

"He's a good player, and we know that, but if he gets shaken and doesn't go out there and think that I am, then that's where a lot of rookie corners struggle," Henderson said. "The one thing that you've got to know is at some point, they're gonna get you. It doesn't matter who you are. If you play corner in this league, at some point, they're gonna get you.

"After they get you, you've got to come back and play with discipline, technique and focus the next play and say, 'It's not happening again.' "

Just to be clear, the Cowboys aren't concerned about Claiborne's confidence. In their evaluations, Claiborne's confidence was just about as impressive as his physical tools.

Claiborne might not possess Prime Time-type swagger, but it's ridiculously premature to compare a rookie corner to arguably the best cover man in NFL history.

Unless you're trying to sell jerseys or justify a draft-day deal.

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