NEW YORK — Once the shock wore off for Mo Claiborne it didn’t take long for the new Cowboys cornerback to start drawing comparisons to some of the league’s best. In fact there had been only one other defensive back ever to be graded higher by Cowboys scouts.
Hall of Famer Deion Sanders.
“Deion was special with his burst,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. “But certainly he is the best they have graded for us since Deion. That would have included Deion after he came in here. Deion had the highest touchdown-per-touch of any player in NFL history.”
Having such a distinction is not typically a sought after quality in a cornerback, but Jones said it is Claiborne’s ball skills that set him apart and made the organization willing to trade their 14th pick in the first round to the Rams for their sixth pick in order to steal Claiborne. It’s what makes him different from the last cornerback the Cowboys drafted this high, Terrance Newman with the fifth pick in the 2003 draft, who the Cowboys released when free agency started this year.
Newman made the Pro Bowl twice and started all but two games for the Cowboys in his nine years there.
“He was one of the top cornerbacks in my eyes around on coverage, but not necessarily going up and making the plays,” Jerry Jones said of Newman.
Playmaker, indeed, is Claiborne. In his two seasons starting at LSU, the 5-11, 188-pound corner picked off 11 passes and returned them for an average of 24.9 yards. He also returned kickoffs at a 25.4 yard-per clip, including one for 99 yards and a touchdown at West Virginia in the midst of a furious Mountaineer rally. After his final season at LSU he was awarded the Jim Thorpe award as the nation’s top defensive back, SEC Defensive Player of the Year, and was a consensus first-team All-American.
“He’s an elite player by the judgment of our scouts and our coaches,” Jones said. “We certainly had other players we were looking at, but (Claiborne) was the only player we were willing to trade up for.”
That trade was a shock to Claiborne and maybe even the entire NFL. It was perhaps a situation where the Cowboys were keeping their intentions close to the vest until draft day. Or it could have been just a case of luck. The Cowboys hadn’t even spent much time with Claiborne during predraft workouts. The Dallas organization was not one of the eight Claiborne visited.
“It was crazy, (the Cowboys) showed no interest at all in me,” Claiborne said. “They didn’t even look at me. I never heard from any representative of the Dallas Cowboys.”
“We didn’t think it was realistic that we’d ever get a player like that,” Cowboys vice president Stephen Jones said.
Not at pick No. 14, for sure, but when the Rams showed repeated interest in the trade, the Cowboys couldn’t pass on a player projected on some draft boards to go as high as No. 3 to the Vikings. The Cowboys had to give up only their 14th pick and their second-round selection (45th overall) to take Claiborne.
“I know they sacrificed to come down to get me, but I feel like I’m worth it,” Claiborne said. “I know my talents, I know what I’m able to do and feel like I can come in right away and get with the team, learn the system and compete.”
Claiborne was sitting in the green room and received a call on his cell phone just after 8 pm EDT. When the man on the other end said, “Do you want to be a Dallas Cowboy?” Claiborne nearly hung up the phone.
But the caller was none other than Jones himself, one of the most recognized voices in professional sports.
“Once I knew it was him I was like, oh my God,” Claiborne said.
Many of Claiborne’s family members have been lifelong Cowboy fans. Claiborne was a Terrell Owens fan when the receiver played in Dallas.
“I said, ‘The Cowboys,’ and there was a lot of crying,” Claiborne said.
Claiborne will be in the mix for a starting spot immediately. In free agency, the Cowboys signed Brandon Carr to a five-year contract; they also have Orlando Scandrick and Mike Jenkins on the roster. Jenkins is in the final year of his contract and is seeking a long-term deal, so the Cowboys’ move to draft Claiborne may indicate their intentions for Jenkins. If Claiborne is as good as advertised, Jenkins may be expendable in a trade.
“I don’t know anything about that game yet,” Claiborne said. “I haven’t played a snap yet. I’m just so excited to get around my teammates.”
If Claiborne is indeed humble about his new star status, he is certainly not lacking for balance. There is another side of him that knows his abilities. Last year it was former LSU teammate Patrick Peterson who was the highest rated corner coming out of the draft and being picked in the top ten.
And of course we know about the comparison to Deion Sanders.
But Claiborne doesn’t compare himself to either of those players. Not out of humility, understand.
He compares himself to someone else.
Regarded by many to be the league’s best corner and known for his nickname “Revis Island” because he capable of shutting down the opponent’s best receiver by himself, the New York Jets corner is certainly a high standard to strive for.
“He’s on that level where not too many of the guys are doing the things that he’s doing and I believe I can be that type of player also,” Claiborne said.
It is the confidence-bordering-on-cockiness that every great NFL corner must possess. And if Claiborne is indeed in the same league as Revis, he will be the prime-time player Jerry Jones wants for years to come.