Cornerback play wasn’t one of the Dallas Cowboys’ strengths last season. While Orlando Scandrick had a good year, Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr struggled.
Neither Claiborne, the sixth overall pick in 2012, nor Carr, a free agent in 2012 who signed with the Cowboys for five years, $50 million, adapted well to Monte Kiffin’s Tampa-2 scheme. They combined to break-up 17 passes and record four interceptions.
Rod Marinelli, who is now calling the shots for the Dallas defense, is confident he can get better years from two of his top defensive backs.
"I think our three corners are really good," Marinelli said. "And in what we’re doing, they can really play. You got youth and you got some athleticism and ball skills. Now, it’s our job to get them coached-up and to fit in the system and understand the whys in the system. We feel good about that."
Carr and Claiborne are best utilized as man-coverage corners, that’s where they had success before arriving in Dallas. Last season, they were asked to play more zone coverage.
And the results weren’t pretty. Of the 199 cornerbacks graded by Pro Football Focus, Scandrick ranked 48th, Carr came in at 117 and Claiborne was near the bottom at 177.
Claiborne doesn’t envision a repeat performance.
Despite losing his starting job to Scandrick last year, Claiborne says the group is focused on what they can do together, not on who is working with the first team.
"We believe that we can be the best in the league," Claiborne said of the trio. "We got some unique talent on our team, especially in our secondary. With us three in general, from the way we work and the way we go at it, we’re pushing each other each and every day.
"We feel like there’s no starting corner. All of us have the ability to go out and play, and we’re going to go out and compete like that. All of us know it. We help each other, but at the same time, when we’re on the field, we compete against each other."
Claiborne bulked up last year to be better prepared for a system that needed him to make more tackles. He said he added bad weight, and since has lost 12 pounds, getting down to 180.
After battling through shoulder and hamstring injuries last season, Claiborne says he is more committed than ever to pre- and post-practice stretching and working in the weight room.
"I had no choice, going through the shoulder injury and stuff like that," he said. "I feel better than I’ve ever felt."
And because of his off-season work, Claiborne says he won’t have any regrets if he suffers another injury. He believes he’s doing all he can to prepare himself.
Claiborne also says he has grown as a person because of his experiences late last season. In December, while trying to rehab his hamstring injury, Claiborne’s father died. Five days later, Claiborne’s daughter was born.
"That was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through," he said. "I feel like all that time that I missed last year, God put me in that position for a reason. I had so much going on that you couldn’t run from it. Everything was right there. You had to face everything right then and there.
"From my dad dying, to not being able to play football, to having a little girl a week or so later, everything was happening so fast, I had to react, I had to be a grown-up. I couldn’t run from nothing. I feel like I’ve grown and learned from all that."