Bucky Brooks of NFL.com believes that Morris Claiborne of the Cowboys will be the most improved defensive back in 2013.
Claiborne struggled during his rookie season due to the fact that former defensive coordinator Rob Ryan often had him cover some of the NFL’s top receivers without any safety help over the top.
Claiborne frequently was assigned to receivers in man coverage without getting safety help over the top, leaving him vulnerable to vertical routes and double moves by crafty receivers. Although Claiborne fiercely competed on the edges, the overexposure to isolated coverage put the young defender at a disadvantage for most of his rookie season.
Brooks believes Claiborne will improve in 2013 because of the experience he gained during his rookie year.
The 15 starts Claiborne made as a first-year player should have provided him with a wealth of experience and teachable moments. Coaches put together cut-up reels to highlight his flaws while spending time with him on the field to refine his technique. The knowledge Claiborne gained in 2012 should help him avoid repeating similar mistakes, resulting in better anticipation and instincts in coverage. Most importantly, I expect Claiborne to develop improved situational awareness on the perimeter. With a better understanding of down-and-distance and hash-split rules, he’ll be able to make quicker breaks on throws and should snare more interceptions in 2013.
Despite Claiborne’s struggles in 2012, Brooks was impressed with Claiborne’s footwork, his technique in shadowing receivers and his natural ability to find the football.
In the run-up to the 2012 NFL Draft, I thought Claiborne looked like one of the most complete cornerbacks to enter the NFL in some time. He could play effectively in press coverage and had shown the footwork and awareness to shadow receivers utilizing off technique. Additionally, he was a natural ball hawk with some of the best hands one ever will see on a defensive back.
Those skills remained intact during Claiborne’s rookie season in Dallas, even while he endured the aforementioned struggles. He flashed impressive footwork in coverage and showed that he has a knack for getting around the ball when he plays with proper technique. As a result, he finished 2012 with eight pass breakups and one interception. Those numbers are hardly eye-popping at first glance, but they’re certainly solid for a first-year starter.
Lastly, Brooks believes Monte Kiffin’s “Tampa 2″ defense will be a great fit for Claiborne.
The arrival of new coordinator Monte Kiffin and his Tampa 2 scheme should also help Claiborne play better in 2013. The system features a variety of zone-based concepts, which require cornerbacks to maintain vision of the ball. Rather than running down the field with their eyes fixated on the receiver, cornerbacks in this scheme are able to see the ball leave the quarterback’s hand — meaning a savvy ball hawk like Claiborne should have more opportunities to make plays. Defenders under Kiffin’s direction routinely pick off passes on tips or overthrows in the back end; given Claiborne’s strong hands and ball skills, I expect him to make more plays like the one shown in the video to the right.
Another aspect of Kiffin’s defense that will benefit Claiborne is the emphasis on hustle and running to the ball. TheCowboys’ defense will be challenged by the coaching staff to run to the ball with fervor, to strip and poke at the ball at all times and to develop a “scoop and score” mentality. Claiborne already possesses an offensive mindset as a defender, which makes him a potential game changer in the back end with his speed, quickness and ball skills.