Perhaps no individual Dallas Cowboys player has more riding on this 2016 playoff appearance than cornerback Morris Claiborne. With free agency on the horizon and an injury-plagued past, the Cowboys' most-talented CB could make a big impact on his future with how he performs during this postseason.
When Claiborne's rookie deal expired after 2015, Dallas was not ready to make any long-term commitment to their former first-round pick. Claiborne had just missed five of the team's final seven games; the story of his career thus far. Still believing in his talent, Dallas signed him to a one-year “prove yourself” contract.
You can understand the Cowboys' skepticism. After being taken with the sixth-overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Claiborne has missed 35 games during his career. That's 43% of the 82 games (including 2014 playoffs) that he could've played in. This doesn't even include games that he left to due to injury, or games where his performance was limited because of health issues.
Claiborne started off this critical last-chance season as well as anyone could've hoped. He was the best cornerback on the field and had got people excited very quickly. Just check out these two articles that were written after the Cowboys first two games:
BURSTING THE BUST LABEL: MORRIS CLAIBORNE TAKING ADVANTAGE OF OPPORTUNITIES
SHOULD COWBOYS GIVE MORRIS CLAIBORNE A CONTRACT EXTENSION?
That enthusiasm didn't last forever, sadly. Claiborne suffered a groin injury in Week 8 and hasn't been seen since. Now, after a nine-week absence, he prepares to rejoin the team in their first playoff game.
Claiborne's entire career has been polarizing but this 2016 season has taken it to a new level. He's never looked better, or closer to a former Top-10 draft prospect, than he did during those early weeks. But then he missed nine games with yet another injury.
Whatever side of the Morris Claiborne fence you're on, there was evidence to support your position. The question now is where the Cowboys stand on Claiborne's future and what, if anything, he can do to move the needle during this next month.
Morris turns 27 this February, still a prime age for a nice free agent contract. What's more, the cornerbacks entering free agency this offseason are not a huge crop. Even with his red flags, Claiborne could still be one of the most attractive names on the market. Here is a sampling:
- Stephen Gilmore – Bills (age 26)
- Trumaine Johnson – Rams (age 27)
- Captain Munnerlyn – Vikings (age 26)
- Marcus Cooper – Cardinals (age 26)
Gilmore and Johnson will be top targets but you could make a case for Mo being in the Top 3 with them. The point here is that Claiborne, a former elite draft prospect, will be open to the rest of the NFL. Plenty of teams and scouts were looking at him five years ago. Will they look again?
So much depends on what Morris Claiborne does during the playoffs. He needs to enter the offseason on a positive note. It can't be just that he was actually available, though. Claiborne needs to be at the level that we saw early in the season; reminding everyone of why he was once a sixth-overall pick.
Dallas will likely try to keep one of either Claiborne or Brandon Carr. They have Orlando Scandrick under contract and rookie Anthony Brown has been a late-round steal. The Cowboys will want at least one of the other veterans around for stability in 2017.
Carr and Claiborne are polar opposites. Brandon is all about reliability, having never missed a game in nine seasons. He never wows you but plays solidly and is a competent starter when the defense around him are performing. Claiborne is the guy who flashes greatness and keeps you enticed with his upside but just hasn't stayed healthy.
Morris Claiborne has every advantage here. With Carr turning 31 this May, Dallas would obviously rather go with the younger guy. But if they lose faith in Claiborne, the Cowboys might give Carr a short-term deal to provide depth and security while they target a young talent in the draft.
While we all obviously want Dallas to advance in the playoffs, perhaps no player needs it more than Claiborne. One game may not be enough to make a statement. Fortunately, any selfish motivation on Morris' part will only help the Cowboys in their goals of winning a championship. It's a mutually beneficial situation.
Even if this is the last we see of Morris Claiborne in Dallas, we can at least be sure that we're getting his best. Claiborne's ceiling makes him our best cornerback. If he can take a weapon away from Aaron Rodgers, or potentially slow down Julio Jones in the NFC Championship game, it will go a long way to making up for all of the disappointing years before.