Dallas Cowboys fans have been buzzing about the addition of Morris Claiborne to their secondary. The consensus top corner in the 2012 draft, Claiborne is a clearly a talented player. But how much of an impact can he really make in his rookie season?
Playing cornerback as a rookie in the NFL is tough. The quarterbacks are quicker and more accurate, the wide receivers have more speed and the game is faster than in college. Although playing the position has become more difficult since I suited up, the basic tenets for rookie success at the position are the same. You have to play with your eyes, your feet and your hands -- and you have to be a willing tackler. It's not easy for a rookie CB in the NFL, but you can have success.
So, how much impact can Claiborne and the other first-year CBs have? We'll get to that in a second. First, here are a couple things Claiborne and Co. need to remember:
Have a short-term memory
As a rookie cornerback, you're going to get beat. There is a learning curve. The question is how you respond. Just look at Patrick Peterson last year. A supremely athletic corner, he was getting beat early and often, but he started to figure it out the second half of the year. As a rookie, you need confidence and have to play on instincts because it's very difficult to learn all of the coverages -- especially if they are complex. Opposing offensive coordinators will test you deep early. They want to see if you can stop a go route and how you play the ball down the field. The right mentality is key. You're going to give up a few deep balls. But I always said that once the ball leaves the QB's hands, the only name on it is the commissioner's. When I went up, I was trying to intercept it every time -- and I came down with it 38 times in my career (including five in the postseason).
Understand angles and body position
Knowing how to use angles is critical as a corner. When you can take angles away, you can control the speed of your opponent. For example, if a wide receiver is running an out route, you can't ever run flat. If you plant and see the QB throw the ball to the sideline, you'll never get there. You have to plant and go to the angle where you know the ball will be thrown.
When I played corner, I was usually on the right side. I always tried to keep inside leverage and make the QB throw to the sideline. As the field squeezed, I played the receiver tighter. Once the ball crossed the 30-yard line, I really squeezed him because the threat of the vertical pass was minimized. Secondary coaches are vital in helping teach rookie corners proper fundamentals and technique.
Know how offenses attack
I was lucky in that when I went to my first training camp as a rookie, the Philadelphia Eagles put me at strong safety the first week. I saw the field through a different lens and started learning route combinations. I also made an effort to always talk to my then-QB and current ESPN colleague Ron Jaworski about how our offense was trying to attack defenses. It's crucial that rookie CBs study film, pay attention in meetings and know their opponents. I kept a notebook during the season on the strengths and weaknesses of every receiver I faced. Once a CB begins to understand the patterns of how an offense attacks, he can go from reacting to receivers to making plays and creating turnovers.
For example, I usually was lined up opposite the X receiver for the most part. The key was to look from WR to RB to QB. Certain patterns by the RB determined what route the X receiver would run. If it was a three-step drop by the QB, I knew it was something short -- a hitch, a slant or a quick out, or a double move. If it was five-step drop, it was going to be a hook, a 12-yard out or a skinny post. If it was seven-step drop, it was going to be a dig, a go or a post.
In today's NFL, it's especially tough on rookie corners because offenses spread defenses out. That means that rookie corners, if they have talent, will be put on the field probably before they are ready. Even first-round cornerbacks are likely to struggle initially. Defensive coordinators are forced to scheme to hide weaknesses in the secondary.
What does this all mean for the top CBs in the past draft? Let's take a look:
Claiborne has good size, length and terrific ball skills. His wingspan is amazing. When it looks like he's beat by two yards, he's actually in perfect position. He's athletic, very competitive and is better in bump coverage than off. He's a good matchup against bigger receivers, and he'll have a huge challenge playing in the NFC East against Hakeem Nicks, Jeremy Maclin and others. His biggest issue is lack of game experience and lack of reps in practice, which is why his recent knee injury hurts even more. He can't get enough reps.