GRAPEVINE, Texas –
That label as a top-10 pick will follow Claiborne, now entering his third year in the league, everywhere he goes. It’ll also be a caveat when describing his play, and that’ll continue to be the case until he can stay healthy.
But his motivation isn’t related to his draft position.
“That’s history,” Claiborne said. “I fuel myself. This whole offseason I’ve been sitting pretty much in a dark room, sorry to say, just trying to get my mind right and getting ready for this upcoming season – to take advantage of this opportunity I have, this blessing. It’s a blessing to be able to play in the NFL.”
Unfortunately for Claiborne, injuries haven’t allowed him to play as much as he’d like to. From hamstring to knee to wrist to shoulder to finger injuries, he’s had more ailments than interceptions thus far in his career, playing through pain in many contests and missing six games the last two years.
Last year, Claiborne dealt with a shoulder injury from the first game of the regular season on through the rest of the year. He had surgery this offseason to correct that shoulder injury, and he also had finger surgery on a break he’d been playing through since his rookie year.
The corner’s finally healthy, though. Only this time, he’ll have to fight to earn back the starting spot he lost last year when
“It’s no secret, and I’m not shying away from the fact that Scandrick is starting,” Claiborne said. “Everything that Scandrick did last year, he deserves it. He had a great year last year, but that’s not going to stop us from going out and competing against each other.
“We give each other advice, we talk to each other, but on the field we know what time it is. We know it’s time to go out and compete.”
Claiborne doesn’t have to be told by his coaches that he needs to earn his job back to know the circumstances.
“What’s understood doesn’t have to be explained,” he said. “They don’t have to come up and tell me, ‘You’re in a battle for this spot.’ I know each and every day that I go out it’s a battle, whether I’m starting or I’m not starting. Somebody’s coming, somebody’s behind you.”
This is the first week Claiborne’s been given the green light to go fully during the team drills at OTAs. He said he’ll do the same the rest of the week and he feels 100 percent.
He also said this is the best he’s felt in a long time, which needs to be the case if he’s to meet the lofty expectations placed upon him.
“Last week was just something for precaution, they were holding me out,” Claiborne said. “They kept asking me how do I feel, how do I feel. I kept telling them, ‘I’m great.’ I feel like I’m able to go out and do everything.”
The scrutiny Claiborne’s dealt with throughout his career is a microcosm of a greater scrutiny the entire Cowboys secondary has dealt with the last few years. The members of that secondary hear the criticism but don’t let it affect them, according to Claiborne.
“It just motivates us,” Claiborne said. “We know everybody is against us. A lot of people say they want us to succeed, but a lot of people don’t. We’re just keeping it in-house as us guys and trying to go out and get the job done – not worry too much about what the outside world is going on and what people are talking about.”
What many are talking about is last year’s disturbing defensive trend, particularly in pass defense. The Cowboys made an effort to get younger on the defensive line with the hope that’ll create more pressure.
There’s also a wide belief the Cowboys’ corners are better suited to run more man defense, and Claiborne said the plan is to do more of that.
“We’ve got three good corners that can go up and play with anybody,” he said. “When you have those types of weapons on your team, you have to use them. I don’t know how much man or what we’ll actually be in, but I know we’ll be in a good majority of it.”
Claiborne also knows the corners have to prove to the coaches they can play man consistently in practice. He said the man versus zone conversation was “a big talk of last year.”
“We had the corners to play man-to-man, but also we had a zone concept and scheme,” he said. “Obviously, you can’t be up and play man-to-man all game long… I think (Rod) Marinelli’s going to do a good job of mixing it up and giving us a lot to play with this year.”
Before Claiborne can worry about that, though, the primary focus needs to be staying on the field.
“So far, the coaches have been telling me they like how I’ve been working this offseason, and just to keep it up,” he said. “And that’s my goal this offseason, is to make this offseason the best offseason I’ve had since I’ve been in the NFL and worry about the outcome later.”