ST. LOUIS — We interrupt the Robert Griffin III, Justin Blackmon, Matt Kalil portion of the pre-draft hype with these words: Morris Claiborne.
Claiborne, the highly touted cornerback from Louisiana State University, very much figures into the draft deliberations at Rams Park, particularly in the likely event of a trade-down from the No. 2 overall pick.
Widely considered the top cornerback in the 2012 draft, Claiborne could be an option for the Rams in a trade with Cleveland (at No. 4 overall) or Washington (at No. 6). Then again, the No. 6 might be too late for Claiborne, who won the Thorpe Award this past season as college football’s top defensive back.
A lot of mock drafts have Tampa Bay taking Claiborne at No. 5 overall, which makes sense for a couple of reasons. The Buccaneers need help at the position, and Claiborne’s defensive backs coach at LSU, Ron Cooper, is now a member of Greg Schiano’s staff in Tampa.
It’s easy enough to see why the Rams would be interested, just in terms of the team’s roster situation. By season’s end, six of the 16 Rams players on injured reserve were cornerbacks. Among the top five cornerbacks from a year ago, Al Harris has retired, Justin King is an unrestricted free agent, and Ron Bartell (neck), Bradley Fletcher (knee) and Jerome Murphy (ankle) are coming back from season-ending injuries.
Bartell and Fletcher, minus the injuries, would give the Rams a solid set of starting cornerbacks. Bartell was cleared to play a couple of months ago after suffering a fractured neck in the 2011 season opener. Unlike Peyton Manning, Bartell didn’t need surgery, but there’s always uncertainty coming off neck injuries.
Fletcher is recovering from his second major knee injury in three NFL seasons; he has had anterior cruciate ligament injuries in both knees. Last season’s injury occurred during a bye week practice in October, and it’s uncertain when he’ll be ready to play.
“The goal’s to get him healthy,” general manager Les Snead said. “With those type injuries, we’ll not be able to put him on the field until he’s 100 percent. You don’t want to get it back too early and do further damage.”
So unless the Rams add a starting cornerback via free agency, it almost seems like a necessity to add one in the draft. Claiborne, 5-11, 188, brings a lot to table as the latest defensive back prospect to come out of “DBU.”
“Patrick (Peterson) actually gave us the name, and we just kept it going,” Claiborne said.
Peterson enjoyed a banner rookie season with Arizona — just ask the Rams’ punt coverage unit — after being the No. 5 overall pick out of LSU in last year’s draft. Claiborne is shorter, lighter and not quite as fast as Peterson. But Claiborne has plenty of athletic ability, very good speed and return ability of his own — albeit on kickoffs. And Claiborne probably has better coverage technique entering the pros than Peterson did.
Claiborne was hoping to break 4.4 seconds in the 40 Tuesday at the NFL scouting combine but ended up running respectable 4.50. Although slower than expected, that time shouldn’t change his status as a sure top 10 pick and likely top five pick.
Claiborne concedes he’s not the most physical cornerback around. He described his game as, “more of a technician, and trying to funnel the guys instead of getting real physical with them at the line all the time.”
What sets Claiborne apart from most are his ball skills. He is adept at tracking the football, then going up and snatching it in the air. He had 11 career interceptions in college, including six last season when he led the nation in interception return yards (173).
None of which should be surprising since Claiborne almost always played offense growing up in Shreveport, La. “I was recruited as a receiver,” he said.
As an LSU freshman in 2009, he began fall camp as a wide receiver but has Peterson to thank for getting him over to defense.
“He was my host on my (recruiting) visit,” Claiborne said. “He was always like, ‘You’ve got to come play corner.’ And every day at practice that’s what he was telling me. ‘You’ve got to at least come try it. You’re a corner! You’re a corner.’ I took his advice and the coaches’ as well. It’s turned out well for me.”
If the Rams’ don’t take Claiborne for whatever reason, there’s another top 10 prospect in Southeastern Conference rival Dre Kirkpatrick of Alabama. Taller and thinner than Claiborne at 6-2, 186, he was a three-year starter for the Crimson Tide before turning pro early (as did Claiborne).
Kirkpatrick doesn’t have Claiborne’s ball skills — he didn’t have an interception last season. And with his frame, some project him as a safety in the NFL if he gains weight and gets stronger. But Kirkpatrick, who ran a 4.51 Tuesday, allowed only one TD pass during his college career playing a mix of zone, man, press, and off coverage for Alabama coach Nick Saban.
Kirkpatrick didn’t help his draft stock when arrested on a marijuana possession charge shortly after turning pro. But the charge was quickly dismissed. “It was me being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Kirkpatrick said. “The guy that left the marijuana in the car turned himself in and didn’t want to put me in a bad situation. He signed an affidavit saying that I was unaware of the marijuana being in the car.”
(c)2012 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
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