With the NFL offseason now officially underway, it's never too early to start focusing on the next order of business, which is free agency. The Cowboys have 20 unrestricted free agents who can sign with other teams starting on March 9, unless they strike a new deal with the Cowboys before then.
Over the next two weeks, DallasCowboys.com staff writers will break down each free agent, analyzing their strengths and weaknesses and the possibilities of a return in 2017.
Today, we'll continue the series with cornerback Morris Claiborne.
What's The Deal: The story of Claiborne's future in Dallas has been a long and winding saga for much of the past three years. In 2016, it took yet another turn – because the veteran cornerback finally showed a glimpse of the talent that made him a top 10 draft pick in 2012. After signing a one-year "prove it" deal last spring, Claiborne reported to training camp fully healthy and began playing the best football of his career. The early portion of the season saw him excel at the highest stage, as he dominated top flight receivers like Alshon Jeffery and A.J. Green while helping the Cowboys to a surprising win streak. Unfortunately, injuries have hampered Claiborne's career going all the way back to his rookie season – and they were an issue again this year. Halfway through the season, he suffered a severe groin injury that sidelined him for the rest of the year. The Cowboys opted not to move him to injured reserve, and he rehabbed in time to return for the playoffs. He played adequately in the loss to Green Bay, but the fact remains: Claiborne headed into the offseason having played just eight of 17 games of the year. His early success was just a cruel reminder of how well he can play when he's healthy.
Cowboys Highlight: A few things come to mind over the course of Claiborne's five years with the Cowboys.
Whatever happens the rest of his career, Claiborne will always be able to say he picked off Peyton Manning during one of the hottest stretches of his career. Manning opened the 2013 season with an absurd 20 touchdown passes to zero interceptions – until the waning seconds of the third quarter, when Claiborne made him pay for pushing the ball deep. Of course, the Cowboys wind up losing a classic, 51-48, which is all that most people remember.
The next season, Claiborne found some much-needed redemption after a tough stretch of news. The week leading up to a Week 3 matchup with the Rams, Claiborne made headlines when he abruptly left the Cowboys' Valley Ranch facility after learning he'd been benched in favor of Orlando Scandrick. To make matters worse, Rams quarterback Austin Davis picked on him frequently in the game, racking up 327 yards on the day. It was Claiborne who had the last laugh, though. With Dallas clinging to a 34-31 lead in the fourth quarter, Davis tested Claiborne deep down the left sideline – and was intercepted. Claiborne rebounded to deliver the game-clinching takeaway.
The first two weeks of October 2016 were arguably the greatest stretch of Claiborne's pro career.
He took over the second half of the Week 4 win against San Francisco. He picked off Blaine Gabbert in the early moments of the fourth quarter, setting Dallas up for a field goal that would push the lead to 24-17. Moments later, with the 49ers driving to tie the game, Claiborne tackled Torrey Smith short of the sticks on a crucial 4th-and-6, giving the Cowboys the ball back to run out the clock.
The next week, Claiborne helped limit A.J. Green to just four catches for 50 yards in a 28-14 win against the Bengals. He finished with two pass breakups on Green – including one that nullified a surefire touchdown early in the third quarter.
Argument to Keep: As has been noted, Claiborne has certainly flashed the talent that made him the No. 6 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. He has five years of starting experience, and he has played four years in Rod Marinelli's defensive scheme. On top of that, his injury history should make him affordable. Whereas a more dependable cornerback could fetch a multi-year, mega-million dollar contract in free agency, it's hard to imagine NFL teams wanting to invest in an injury risk. The Cowboys retained Claiborne on a one-year, $3 million contract last year. His impressive play from 2016 might raise his price a little bit – but not too much. Claiborne represents a starter-caliber player at a low cost.
Argument to Let Go: Unfortunately, the cost is low because his reliability is low, as well. In his time with the team, Claiborne has played in just 48 of 83 possible games. He tore his patellar tendon in 2014, missing 12 games and the playoffs. Hamstring and shoulder injuries have hampered him in the past. And obviously the groin injury last October derailed his most recent campaign. Bringing Claiborne back would certainly improve the Cowboys' depth at cornerback, but it's unsettling to think he has never played a 16-game season in five attempts. Rather than sign him and hope for the best, the Cowboys might prefer to invest in a heathier option.
Bryan Broaddus' Scout's Take: I can't recall a player that has had a career as maligned as Morris Claiborne. At times it has been brilliant, but there have been other times of utter despair. I believe that he has a passion for the game and loves to compete, but circumstances beyond his control have robbed him of the opportunity for success. When healthy, he has the physical and mental toughness to compete. His playing speed, acceleration and range is outstanding. He is very much a reactionary athlete. He can plant, drive and defend the ball -- both run and pass. His lateral quickness, body control and balance are some of his best traits. For a player his size, he is surprisingly strong. He is not afraid to throw his body around in order to get the ball carrier down. He is also a better player when he can play tight and work his hands on the receiver. Claiborne is not a bad player in off coverage, but he's better suited to play in press. He has never had a problem with receivers that have size -- once had a career game playing against Julio Jones of the Falcons. I'm surprised he played for a one year deal in 2016. He might have to do the same thing for this season, but the fact that he doesn't stay healthy for an entire season would give me pause to bring him back at all.
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