With the 2011 NFL season in the books, it's time to turn our eyes to the NFL draft, and the pre-draft evaluation process. Right up to the draft, we'll be taking a closer look at the 50 players who may be the biggest NFL difference-makers when all is said and done.
We continue this year's series with LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne, who has a tough act to follow at the college and pro level. Claiborne became LSU's main man after Patrick Peterson was selected by the Arizona Cardinals last year, and in his first season, Peterson developed into the kind of cover corner who could execute what our buddy Greg Cosell calls "Deion coverage" -- man press with no help over the top on an opponent's best receiver. But as a two-year starter, Claiborne has been very productive himself -- he picked off five passes in 2010 as the primary target of enemy quarterbacks, and he upped that to six picks in 2011. Recruited as a receiver, Claiborne was moved to the defensive side of the ball at Peterson's insistence, which proves that Peterson might have a future as a talent evaluator, as well.
A total yardage nightmare as a quarterback at Shreveport's Fair Park High School, Claiborne also excelled at basketball, baseball, and track, and you can see the hoops and track backgrounds in his play -- he's a smooth runner with nice get-up speed, and his leaping ability allows him to gain advantage beyond his 5-foot-11, 188-pound frame. He had 19 kick returns for 500 yards and a touchdown, broke up 12 passes in addition to those 11 picks, and added two sacks and two quarterback hurries to his portfolio. Claiborne is a very versatile defensive back with a world of potential, but does he have the skill to expand as quickly as Peterson did?
Pros: Plays off coverage very well -- lines up at the top of brackets and reads the action consistently. Not a big player, but uses reach, extension and timed jumps to play bigger than he is in coverage. Backpedals naturally and turns in stride; doesn't get lost or lose ground when he's flipping his hips. Gains inside position on deep routes and stays with his man. Recovers well on comebacks and other quick-change routes when he's tasked to adapt to receivers who are making quick cuts. In man or press coverage, extends with the first steps of the route, stays with the receiver, jumps routes, and is always looking to make a play on the ball. Gets in front of his man with excellent timing on slats and crosses -- receivers will think they have a shot with him, and he'll get an arm out at the last second.
Very physical player at the line. He will get the first shot in and redirect the receiver; seems a natural player for the increasing 2-man (press corners and deep safeties) coverage concepts in the NFL. Doesn't need help up top; Claiborne has great range and isn't often badly beaten. Not a great tackler, but Claiborne is a physical player who will mix it up in space and mess up route concepts. Willing blitzer with the short-area speed off the edge to make things happen. Former receiver plays the ball very well and will get his share of picks at any level. Held up well as the more targeted cornerback when Patrick Peterson was scaring quartebacks to death, and transitioned to the shutdown guy in 2011 with little trouble.
Cons: While Claiborne is a smooth player for the most part, his speed doesn't always show up on tape. 4.5 player on the combine track, and the film reflects that. As a returner, he's more about weaving through defenders than getting a gap and hitting fifth gear. In coverage, he's more about technique (which is still developing) than epic seam or boundary speed. Not a great tackler -- he'll shoulder-tackle or drag more often than he gets a really good shot in. Closes with authority, but not always with the speed you'd like -- will get a step away at times and will have to use his recovery speed (which is estimable).
Conclusion: It's important to note the difference between guys who don't tackle well and players who are afraid to be physical -- Claiborne doesn't shy away from contact and he has a cocky streak on the field that you like to see. He's an outstanding run fit player ... right up to the point where he has to bring a ballcarrier down. NFL coaches will teach him the right techniques, and tackling could then become more of an asset than a point of concern.
More than ever, the NFL is about redirection and redistribution of receivers at the line, especially with the increasing number of nickel defenses teams use as their base packages. With that in mind, Claiborne is a very valuable chip in this draft class, because he possesses almost every skill required to do that job on a play-to-play basis. He's a better than functional zone corner because he can jump routes and recover to stop short routes. Morris Claiborne doesn't come out of the box like Peterson did, but that's hardly an extreme negative. I still believe that Melvin Ingram is the best defender in this draft class, but Claiborne will be the highest-drafted defender because cornerbacks are so important these days. Especially after he clears up a few technique issues, Claiborne should validate that selection and become one of the NFL's better press corners.
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Pro Comparison: Joe Haden, Cleveland Browns
More Shutdown 50:
#5: Matt Kalil, OT, USC | #6: Melvin Ingram, OLB/DE, South Carolina | #7: Fletcher Cox, DL, Mississippi State| #8: Michael Brockers, DL, LSU | #9: Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State | #10: David CeCastro, OG, Stanford | #11: Stephon Gilmore, OG, Stanford | #12: Kendall Wright, WR, Baylor | #13: Courtney Upshaw, OLB, Alabama | #14: Quinton Coples, DE, North Carolina| #15: Ryan Tannehill, QB, Texas A & M| #16: Luke Kuechly, LB, Boston College | #17: Michael Floyd, WR, Notre Dame | #18: Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama | #19: Mark Barron, S, Alabama | #20: Cordy Glenn, OL, Georgia | #21: Riley Reiff, OT, Iowa | #22: Coby Fleener, TE, Stanford| #23: Devon Still, DT, Penn State| #24: Janoris Jenkins, CB, North Alabama| #25: Jerel Worthy, DT, Michigan State| #26: Nick Perry, DE, USC| #27: Alfonzo Dennard, CB, Nebraska| #28: Dontari Poe, DT/DE, Memphis | #29: Whitney Mercilus, OLB/DE, Illinois | #30: Brandon Thompson, DT, Clemson| #31, Dwayne Allen, TE, Clemson| #32: Jonathan Martin, OT, Stanford| #33: Bobby Massie, OT, Mississippi| #34: Andre Branch, DE/OLB, Clemson | #35: Dont'a Hightower, ILB, Alabama | #36: Chandler Jones, DE, Syracuse| #37: Stephen Hill, WR, Georgia Tech| #38: Vinny Curry, DE, Marshall| #39: Doug Martin, RB, Boise State | #40 : Mohamed Sanu, WR, Rutgers| #41: Zach Brown, OLB, North Carolina| #42: Lavonte David, OLB, Nebraska| #43: Jared Crick, DE/DT, Nebraska| #44: Alshon Jeffrey, WR, South Carolina | #45: Kirk Cousins, QB, Michigan State| #46: Orson Charles, TE, Georgia| #47: Lamar Miller, RB, Miami| #48: Shea McClellin, OLB/DE, Boise State| #49: Rueben Randle, WR, LSU | #50: Jonathan Massaqoui, OLB/DE, Troy
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