Should the Dallas Cowboys Be Concerned About Morris Claiborne?

Brad Gagnon NFL National ColumnistSeptember 7, 2013

Aug 29, 2013; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys cornerback Morris Claiborne (24) on the bench during the second half against the Houston Texans at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Sunday night, Morris Claiborne will start for the Dallas Cowboys in their much-anticipated season-opening home game against the division rival New York Giants.

Depending on the situation, the 23-year-old will be tasked with covering either two-time 1,000-yard receiver Hakeem Nicks, 2012 Pro Bowler Victor Cruz or his rapidly improving former LSU teammate, Rueben Randle.

In other words, Claiborne will be picking his poison, which isn't ideal considering that he missed the Cowboys' entire preseason slate due to a knee injury.

In fact, the 2012 No. 6 overall pick has been hurt nearly as often as he's been healthy since joining America's Team last April.

In addition to missing all five of Dallas' 2013 preseason games, he missed two last August as well. He did manage to start 15 games as a rookie, but he's been forced to sit out the vast majority of offseason workouts over the last two years due to various injuries. 

Given that the 'Boys essentially used their first- and second-round picks in 2012 on the highest-rated defensive player in that draft, as well as the fact that expected adjustment periods are shrinking as the demand for NFL-ready prospects continues to increase in this ridiculously impatient league, the pressure is already on Claiborne to prove that he can become a shutdown corner for this Dallas team.

Rookie corners are supposed to struggle. Few of them don't. Claiborne was no exception.

He had only a single interception and two takeaways in 15 games last year. He took too many penalties, became less dependable as the season unfolded and received mediocre grades as a result of poor advanced stats at Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

However, the second year in the NFL is a different story. After struggling as rookies, the draft's top two corners from 2011—Patrick Peterson and Prince Amukamara—made huge leaps as sophomores in 2012.

That'll be expected of Claiborne this season, but that'll be hard to do considering how much time he's been forced to miss this summer.

Claiborne missed three weeks in August due to a sprained left knee. Last year, a predraft wrist surgery forced him to sit out all of the Cowboys' organized team activities before a right MCL sprain limited his involvement in his inaugural training camp.

He also missed a December game against the Pittsburgh Steelers due to a concussion.

How much better might he have been if not for those injuries? And how far behind has he fallen? 

“As talented as he is, he needs these type of reps to take that next step,” former Cowboy Darren Woodson told Jon Machota of The Dallas Morning News“I’m a little concerned about the start of the season with him and if he needs to knock off some rust."

"Durability is one of the concerns for Claiborne," he said.

In Claiborne's defense, he entered the league with no major injury concerns. He was extremely healthy during his two seasons as a starter at LSU. For whatever reason, things have changed at the next level. 

Back in February, Cowboys secondary coach Jerome Henderson pointed out to that Claiborne was pushed around far too often as a rookie, placing blame on his lack of offseason training prior to the 2012 campaign:

He has to get stronger. There were times where he struggled getting off receivers because he wasn't strong enough. I think some of that was due to the fact he couldn't lift all offseason and build upper body strength.

He was certainly rusty early. Nicks, whom he'll see plenty of on Sunday night, beat him four times out of four in last year's opener:

Claiborne did limit a somewhat hobbled Nicks to only two catches on four targets in their second meeting, but he generally struggled against the game's elite wideouts. A good example came even after the rust had been shaken off in Week 9, when Roddy White and Julio Jones took him to school:

In May, we learned that he'd bulked up, adding eight pounds to his frame.

Henderson shared his thought process behind the change with Rainer Sabin of The Dallas Morning News"There were times last year when he wasn't strong enough to execute a certain technique, so he’s had to get stronger to do that and he’s done the work to do that," he said.

It would have been nice to see Claiborne build off of that as well as his 2012 lumps this preseason and in training campespecially with Monte Kiffin implementing a completely new defensive schemebut that didn't happen because of his bad knee. 

The Cowboys, predictably, aren't panicking. Here's what owner Jerry Jones told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram about Claiborne's durability in mid-August:

He's a young player. The injuries that he’s having are not what you call the kinds of injuries that would be chronic or you'd expect to be dealing with down the road, to the extent down the road means opening night. So all of those things are not a concern. We know the kinds of things he’s been dealing with. He’s every bit the player we thought he was. He’s every bit the athlete we thought he was. And he’s got the size for us, and we’re fine with that, so he ought to be a healthy player and ought to be a healthy player for us soon, right now, opening game.

Amukamara's path is proof that critics could be jumping the gun. The Giants' 2011 first-round pick was limited to only 204 snaps while dealing with injuries as a rookie, but then he became an above-average cover man in his second season. 

Like Amukamara, Claiborne absolutely possesses the ability to alter his trajectoryespecially now that he has gained some muscle.

So don't stress just yet, even if he struggles more than you'd like in September. It's still far too early to draw any conclusions about one of the league's most gifted young defenders.