Claiborne tests high where it counts

This class of cornerbacks in the 2012 NFL Draft is top-heavy with talent, with a significant drop in production after about the top four prospects.

That’s not to say there isn’t talent to be found in later rounds, but those prospects carry some question marks.

Much was made of Morris Claiborne’s Wonderlic scores this week, but it won’t make one bit of difference. When you watch his tape, you see a player who is very smart on the field and understands his assignment within the scheme of the defense. To suggest he isn’t smart enough to learn a defense because of a low Wonderlic score is completely ignorant.

Claiborne is by far the best cornerback in the draft, and he even grades out higher than the first corner selected last year, Patrick Peterson. Peterson offers more explosive playmaking ability in the return game and can turn an interception into a touchdown, but Claiborne is much more sound in his coverage ability.

He is only 5-foot-11 and 188 pounds, but is deceptively long and uses his length to his advantage in coverage. Just like I talk about a receiver’s catch radius, a corner’s ability to be long in coverage makes it more difficult for a quarterback to drop a touch pass over the top of the defender.

Claiborne plays better in off-coverage and will need to work on his upper-body strength and overall technique in press coverage. He has elite ball skills and often looks more comfortable tracking a ball than the receiver he is guarding. He has very loose hips and an elite capability to turn and run, but one criticism is that he sometimes opens up too quickly and gives up some easy completions in front of him.

As for the next best corner in the draft, that’s up for debate. You will hear any of the following: Janoris Jenkins of North Alabama, Dre Kirkpatrick of Alabama, Trumaine Johnson of Montana and Stephen Gilmore of South Carolina.

Jenkins and Johnson are both great players but had their fair share of off-the-field problems. Jenkins was originally enrolled at Florida but was kicked off the team after three arrests, with two coming in a two-week span. He proved his ability at the Senior Bowl, but many teams will take him off the board completely due to those off-field concerns.

As for Johnson, his off-field incidents have been far less publicized, but could be just as concerning. He reminds me a little of Jimmy Smith, the Baltimore Ravens’ first-round pick in 2011. He has comparable size, stature and plays a in a similar style, but a team is going to have to take a chance on him as a person and hope that he matures in the NFL and makes better decisions off the field.

So that leaves Kirkpatrick and Gilmore, and the more I watch tape, the more I like Gilmore as the next best after Claiborne. Kirkpatrick is obviously a talented player, but I almost see him as a better fit at the safety position rather than corner. He is a physical player and willing tackler that would project well in the middle of the field.

When he gets beat, it’s often because he gets caught guessing and placing him as a center fielder would allow him to have more free range as a playmaker.

With Gilmore, you get a more solid all-around cover corner that can be just as effective in man as he is in zone. Additionally, he shows a natural ability to be a positional blitzer like Charles Woodson has done so well throughout his career.

Gilmore is a smart player, both on and off the field. He was on the all-academic SEC team and plays with great instincts and route recognition. In zone coverage, he gets a good punch to re-route players crossing his zone and is deceptively quick in his movements. He will need to become more fluid to stay with elite wide receivers in and out of breaks, but shows the ability to do just that.