Waiting Game: Mental Reps Important For Injured Top Pick


IRVING, Texas - At times during Friday's first rookie minicamp practices at Valley Ranch, sixth overall draft pick Morris Claiborne looked like he couldn't stomach standing on the sideline any longer.

Wearing his No. 24 blue jersey – and a gray cast on his surgically-repaired left wrist – Claiborne occasionally strapped on his helmet for a simulated play during a walk-through.

Actual practice will have to wait a few weeks, though.

"I was holding myself back," Claiborne said with a smile. "The whole time I was out there I was just itching."

The Cowboys expect Claiborne, the consensus top cornerback in this year's class, to be 100 percent by the start of training camp in late July. But he's likely to miss most of the offseason work while rehabbing his wrist. He tore a ligament in LSU's first game against Alabama last Nov. 5 and played through it for the rest of his final college season.

Claiborne said he originally hoped to delay surgery until the end of his first NFL season, but changed his mind in late March on the advice of medical personnel at the Scouting Combine.

Doctors in Baton Rouge will remove Claiborne's three surgical pins next week, after which he'll wear a soft cast for a few weeks. Until he can prove his first-round status on the field, he wants to show the coaches he has a mental grasp of the defense.

"I don't want to be left behind," he said. "When it's really time for camp and everybody's here, I don't want to feel like I lost a step. I can't get out there and do it, but I was taking all the mental reps."

First-year secondary coach Jerome Henderson will keep a constant dialogue with Claiborne during meetings and practice, talking him through situations and techniques. Henderson said he has already noticed "a calmness about him . . . he picks up concepts very quickly."

Just as important during this three-day camp, the Cowboys want Claiborne and the other 47 players – seven draft picks, 22 rookie free agents, 15 tryout players and four first-year veterans – to understand a certain mentality and style of play that's required at the pro level.

"He can't really do anything from a movement standpoint until that cast comes off his wrist, but just being around the football team and how we try to do things, how we teach things technically and from a system standpoint, what the tempo practice is like – I think all those things can help him," head coach Jason Garrett said of Claiborne.

"He's certainly an eager guy. He certainly loves football. That's all the reports we've gotten from the people at LSU who we know pretty well. He's always played that way on tape. Whenever you're a rookie and you have an opportunity to come to a football team, whether you're the first pick or a college free agent, you're excited to show people what you can do. In his case, he can't do that for a few more weeks, but that's OK. He's just got to focus on what he can do, which is be locked in on the meetings and the practice field and learn as much as he can."

The Cowboys fully believe Claiborne will be worth the wait. That's why they hopped on the phone with the St. Louis Rams and traded up eight spots from No. 14 to grab him on opening draft night.

It was a bold move to further upgrade last year's 23rd-ranked pass defense. On paper, the Cowboys have their deepest cornerback crop in years: Claiborne, $50.5 million free agent signing Brandon Carr and incumbents Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick.

Asked if he expects himself to earn a starting job, Claiborne said, "I expect to go out and give it 100 percent. The sky is the limit. I'm going to go out every day and work out and try to earn a spot on this team. It's a goal to start. Who wouldn't want to start? But I'm going to go in every day and go 100 percent."

Henderson, a former nine-year veteran and a second-round pick in 1991, understands all about rookie expectations. By all accounts, the club believes Claiborne has the right makeup to meet them.

"Obviously we think he's a very talented young man or we wouldn't have traded up to get him. You can't hide that fact," Henderson said. "The guy really does have some physical tools.

"Now it's a matter of him coming in and working, me working with him, the defense accepting him and him fitting in and him proving to everybody on the team that he's a quality NFL corner."

He'll just have to wait a little longer to truly show it.

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