Morris Claiborne must improve playmaking to capitalize on opportunity

ARLINGTON, Texas -- It was one of 32 plays for cornerback Morris Claiborne on Saturday night in yet another mostly meaningless preseason.

But that one midway through the second quarter provided meaningful insight into the career of Claiborne, who to this point can only be described as a first-round bust for the Dallas Cowboys.

Claiborne, playing only the third preseason game of his four-year career because of a myriad of injuries, committed a pass interference penalty on second-and-9 from the Minnesota 15, giving the Vikings a first down. Positioned perfectly to knock the ball down or intercept it, Claiborne went through the receiver Adam Thielen instead of maneuvering in front of him and drew the flag.

The question is whether Claiborne can mature enough to trust his technique, his route recognition and ultimately, his playmaking ability.

At some point this season, Claiborne will find himself in a similar situation. How he handles that play will tell us whether he has grown as a player and made himself part of the Cowboys' future. Or whether he'll eventually be the answer to a disappointing trivia question about the Cowboys' only first-round pick from 2010 to 2014 who didn't make a Pro Bowl with the team.

"The only thing I didn't like about his play tonight was the PI," cornerbacks coach Jerome Henderson said after Dallas lost 28-14 to Minnesota Vikins. "He was in great shape and that play should've been a PBU [pass breakup] or a pick.

"He just has to show some poise and let the quarterback throw it. You're in great shape. You know you can run with this guy, so lay on his back hip until the quarterback throws it and calmly go make the play."

Later in the second quarter, Claiborne made a textbook play, positioning himself perfectly between the receiver and the ball and drawing an offensive pass interference penalty in the end zone.

"I was mad he pulled me and made me miss that interception," Claiborne said of the play. "Once I saw the flag, I knew it couldn't have been me, because I hadn't touched anybody.

"It was a heads-up play. Me and Jerome been working on down and distance and formations and recognizing when teams will take a shot. I'm trying to add more to my game."

Henderson wants Claiborne to be thinking constantly about the route the receiver might run on each play -- based on the down, distance, formation, personnel and score -- because anticipation makes the game easier.

At LSU, Claiborne played in such a talented secondary that the Tigers played the most basic of schemes. In most cases, Claiborne worried only about covering the receiver in front of him.

Tigers cornerback Tyrann Mathieu, a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, was a drafted in the third round, and safeties Eric Reid (first round) and Brandon Taylor (third round) were among the top 100 players selected in the draft.

Obviously, NFL defenses are more complex, and it has taken Claiborne time to understand the nuances of the Cowboys' scheme. All his missed time has slowed his progress.

But circumstance has given Claiborne another opportunity to be a key player for the Cowboys. Starter Orlando Scandrick tore the ACL and MCL in his knee during training camp and will miss the season, so Claiborne will compete with Tyler Patmon and Corey White for playing time.

He'll get his first opportunity to start at right cornerback, while Patmon handles Scandrick's slot duties.

There's freedom within defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli's scheme for Claiborne to be aggressive and take advantage of his elite athleticism and ball skills, but he still tends to think too much instead of reacting on the field.

Things better change around for Claiborne, who has contributed little since the Cowboys swapped their first-round pick and gave the St. Louis Rams a second-round selection to move up eight spots and take the player rated No. 2 on their draft board.

Claiborne, the highest-rated cornerback on the Cowboys' draft board since Deion Sanders, has intercepted just three passes in three seasons, while playing in just 29 of 48 possible games.

The Cowboys declined to pick up the fifth-year option on Claiborne's rookie deal.

A torn patellar tendon cost Claiborne the last 12 games of last season, but he impressed the training and coaching staff with his diligence in rehabbing the injury.

"You have no control over getting hurt. If you're gonna get hurt, you're gonna get hurt," Claiborne said. "My main goal was to stay healthy, so I could go through the season without any nagging injuries so I can just play.

"I'm just praying. God has taken me through so many things, and now he's put me in this position. Right now I'm feeling untouchable."

Now, it's about making plays.

"He's such a skilled guy," Henderson said, "but he's had so many starts and stops in his career that he's never been able to play for a long period of time. I hope this is the year he has some rhythm and flow and we can see him do that."

His future in Dallas depends on it.