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Bucs may find it tough to pass on Claiborne

TAMPA - Morris Claiborne wasn't buying what Patrick Peterson was selling in 2009. Claiborne was recruited by Louisiana State as a wide receiver, but Peterson took one look at his athletic new teammate and figured he had found a dazzling partner in the secondary. Three years later, Claiborne is hoping to follow in his mentor's cleat marks as a rookie cornerback who makes the Pro Bowl. "Growing up, I was mainly an offensive guy,'' said Claiborne, who succeeded Peterson as the winner of the Jim Thorpe Award, honoring the nation's premier defensive back. "I never really played corner until I got to college and Patrick kept pulling me aside. I tried it for a day or two and ended up liking it. It was mostly a big brother-little brother type thing. Since the first time I came in on my visit, he's always been there.''
Peterson tied an NFL record by returning four punts for touchdowns last fall after the Arizona Cardinals selected him with the No. 5 overall pick. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are sitting fifth in Thursday's opening round and Claiborne could prove difficult to pass up. "As a pure corner, from a technique standpoint, he's an excellent player,'' said ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. "Claiborne's got wide receiver-type ball skills in terms of when the ball's in the air, it's his. He's not the great athlete that Patrick Peterson is, but he's a pure corner. In this league, he's needed.'' Given Aqib Talib's legal issues – his trial for felony aggravated assault with a deadly weapon is scheduled for late June in Texas – and the annual uncertainty regarding Ronde Barber's status, the Bucs have been linked to Claiborne on many mock draft boards. At 5-foot-11 and 188 pounds, he lacks the imposing size of Peterson, who floored scouts by running a 4.34-second 40-yard dash at the 2011 scouting combine, but Claiborne is considered a better cover corner. "Morris Claiborne is an elite athlete, somebody that will play every down and special teams," LSU coach Les Miles told NFL.com. "He and Patrick are different, but their productivity is very similar. They're both guys who can step up and press a No. 1 receiver in the NFL and play them with confidence. "Patrick's a little bigger and stronger, Mo may be a little more fluid. Both are destined to be long-term productive NFL corners and return men.'' As a senior, Claiborne passed and ran for more than 1,000 yards apiece and accounted for 30 touchdowns at Fair Park High in Shreveport, La., where he also won the state 4A title with a 10.76 clocking in the 100 meters. "Peterson was super fast and Mo's not as fast, but he's got phenomenal ball skills,'' said Browns general manager Tom Heckert, who could be looking at Claiborne with the fourth overall pick. Playing in the NFC South, Tampa Bay cornerbacks are required to shadow game-breaking receivers such as Carolina's Steve Smith, New Orleans' Marques Colston and Atlanta's Roddy White and Julio Jones. "Defensive coordinators covet that one outstanding corner,'' former Seahawks general manager Tim Ruskell said. "The way the game is played today, the value of cornerbacks can't be overstated.'' Claiborne will be in New York for the draft this week, along with other top prospects, and is arriving early to do a photo shoot for GQ Magazine. "I try not to watch the draft projections,'' Claiborne told NFL.com. "They will drive you crazy. It's not in my hands anymore.'' Those soft hands are two big reasons Claiborne is expected to be off the board within the first five picks. "The ball skills Morris has are unbelievable,'' Peterson said while presenting the Thorpe Award to his protégé. "I believed moving to defense would change his career and that's what it did. Morris Claiborne pretty much has all the intangibles that a corner needs to be great.''

ikaufman@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7833

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