Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Rookie NFL corners in danger zone
Dallas Cowboys rookie cornerback Morris Claiborne was just beginning to gain his footing in the NFL last season when Chicago Bears receiver Devin Hester knocked him off stride, seemingly for good, during a Monday night game at Cowboys Stadium in Week 4.
On a first-and-10 play three minutes into the third quarter, Claiborne bit so badly on a double move by Hester that by the time Hester hauled in Jay Cutler’s 34-yard touchdown pass, Claiborne could no longer be seen on even the widest of TV screens.
That play began a steady slide for Claiborne, the sixth overall pick in the 2012 draft. Though he showed some promise, Claiborne mostly struggled, allowing four touchdowns against one interception and finishing 94th in the league with a 107.8 passer-rating-allowed mark, a statistic compiled by profootballfocus.com.
Claiborne’s difficult debut season is one the Buccaneers might want to monitor as they move closer to the possibility of starting their own rookie cornerback this season.
As coach Greg Schiano acknowledged last week, Tampa Bay is running short on starting-caliber corners. That’s why, barring a trade, possibly for New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis, or a late free-agent signing, the Bucs may have no choice but to draft a corner, roll the dice and start him.
“Coming from college to the NFL, there’s a big learning curve for those guys,’’ New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin said of rookie cornerbacks. “The more a guy has played and (gained) experience (in college) the better, obviously, but it’s still a big learning curve for them.’’
Claiborne wasn’t the only rookie corner to slide along that curve last year. Of the seven targeted by opposing quarterbacks at least 50 times, five allowed a passer rating of 91.0 or worse and gave up a combined 18 touchdowns while intercepting just five passes, according to PFF figures.
In fact, during a season when the NFL’s average quarterback passer rating was 86.4, only two rookie corners — Green Bay’s Casey Hayward (31.1) and St. Louis’ Janoris Jenkins (81.3) — produced a better defender rating. Only Hayward had more interceptions than touchdowns allowed, six to zero.
Hayward was the clear standout, proving it’s not impossible for a rookie to step in and become a lockdown corner. It is asking a lot of one, though. Just ask former Miami Dolphins coach Tony Sparano.
In 10 games during the 2009 season, his second as Dolphins coach, Sparano started two rookie cornerbacks — Sean Smith and Vontae Davis. The Dolphins went 7-3 in those games, but the move still proved rather costly.
“It kept me up nights,’’ Sparano told CBS Sports a year later. “But that’s the way it goes sometimes. More and more, people want to get the answer to skill-position players like that right away, and sometimes you just have to take your chances and play them.’’
The Bucs might have little choice but to take such a chance.
After ignoring cornerbacks in free agency, the only veteran starting-caliber corner on their roster is Eric Wright, who was nothing short of a disappointment last year. It is quite possible, then, that the Bucs will spend at least one of their early round selections on a cornerback and then ask that cornerback to step into the starting lineup.
As risky as it seems, the Bucs don’t appear to fear the results.
“Especially with those early picks, you do want guys coming in here that, if they aren’t starting, they are at least playing a substantial role on Sundays,’’ Schiano said. “That’s the goal at least.
“And if it ends up being a cornerback, well, if that’s the way the draft ends up going, then I think that guy would be capable (of playing right away) for us — whoever that guy happens to be.”
The good news for the Bucs is the consensus among scouts is that this year’s draft is loaded with cornerbacks capable of starting as rookies, no matter what system they step into.
For teams that employ mostly zone coverage schemes such as the Tampa 2, prospects include Logan Ryan of Rutgers, Jamar Taylor of Boise State and David Amerson of North Carolina.
And for teams that play more man-to-man or press coverage, which the Bucs did last year, prospects include Dee Milliner of Alabama, Xavier Rhodes of Florida State and D.J. Hayden of Houston.
Even better, teams won’t necessarily have to spend a first-round pick to get one of those players. Most scouts agree starting-caliber corners can be had as late as the third round.
“A lot of people are complaining that this is not a very sexy draft, but there is more depth in this draft than I’ve seen in a while,’’ NFL analyst and draft expert Mike Mayock said. “I think there are at least 25 or 35 more draft-able players available this year than there were last year.’’
The depth at corner is so good, Mayock thinks players such as Jordan Poyer of Oregon State, Robert Alford of Southeastern Louisiana and Dwayne Gratz of Connecticut could be value picks as second- or even third-rounders.
And it’s not like the Bucs would hesitate to start someone drafted in that range. They started three rookies last year, including second-round pick Lavonte David at weakside linebacker, a position many say is far more difficult to play than cornerback.
“Generally the learning curve for a player gets a little easier the further away you get from the ball,’’ Bucs general manager Mark Dominik said. “The (middle) linebacker is over the ball, for example, so he has everything he has to think about. He’s got drops. He’s got the front. He’s got the sides.
“But when you get to the perimeter and you get that far away from the ball, you have this guy and you have your coverage and your techniques, but that’s about it. Even the defensive linemen have all the stunts and games they play, and everything there is happening really fast. But out there on the edge, even if you’re on your own, it can be a little easier.’’
The Bucs are not strangers to starting rookie cornerbacks. They started an undrafted rookie, Leonard Johnson, in six games last year and gave him significant playing time in 10 others.
Though he was beaten for four touchdowns, Johnson intercepted three passes, knocked down six and finished the season with a 93.9 passer-rating-allowed mark that was 65th overall in PFF rankings. That was better than the mark posted by four of the rookies who were drafted in 2012 plus Wright, who ranked 72nd.
And it’s just one reason the Bucs believe they could get by with starting a drafted corner this year.
“What it really comes down to is the system you’re running, the skill set of the player, and what it is that you’re asking him to do,’’ Dominik said. “I know that sounds simplistic, but that’s really how it is.
“And I think you can look back at the previous few drafts and at the guys that went in the first two or three rounds and you’re going to see guys that came in and made a positive immediate impact on their football team. Sometimes that’s a result of the other players around him, but the bottom line is, you can’t be scared to play young players. That’s where we’re at in this league right now. In this day and age, young players have to come in and play.’’