Would the Panthers Be Dumb to Trade for Morris Claiborne?

Could the scouts have gotten it that wrong? Is Morris Claiborne really a bust?  If he were, it would be one of epic proportions--Weeden-esque even!   

The question looms in Dallas though, as the Cowboys may be testing the trade waters for the former #6 overall pick.  Magnate owner/GM Jerry Jones, who just two years ago described Claiborne as “an elite player by the judgment of our scouts and our coaches,” may accept a 3rd round pick for what to this point has been a disappointment.  
jerry jones

Claiborne was the sexy pick of the 2012 draft.  Cornerbacks were in high demand following Patrick Peterson’s rookie success, and Jerry Jones made the flashy move, dealing a 1st and 2nd round pick to the Rams to get him.

Claiborne seemed a sure bet. Draft experts and fan writers fawned over Claiborne’s ability.  He was thought to be NFL ready--a guy good enough to step in and lock down half the field from day one.  One writer described Claiborne as a “better coverage cornerback” than his former LSU teammate, Patrick Peterson, and as having a skillset that ensured his NFL success.  He had those things that just can’t be taught— speed, size, ball skills, instincts, and intangibles.

And then there was the Wonderlic. Claiborne's 4 out of 50 was the lowest test score recorded at the combine since running back Darren Davis in 2000. The score was so low that it near forced everyone to buy his story that he blew off the test.  Claiborne tried to downplay the episode, stating:

“They say it’s an IQ test. I came to the combine for football. I looked at the test, and wasn’t any questions about football. I didn’t see no point in the test. I’m not in school anymore. I didn’t complete it. I only finished 15 or 18 questions.”

Claiborne wasn't the only one who tried to marginalize the test's predictive value.  "Not to minimize his position," Kiper disclaimed," but this isn't a quarterback, this isn't a middle linebacker, this isn't a guy that needs to memorize a dozen reads. He needs to react."  I’m not sure just how indicative Claiborne’s Wonderlic score is of his foot intelligence or actual intelligence, but it is pretty dumb to think that the test have significance. It did cause a lot of people to point and stare anyway. 

The mental side of the game looks as if it has been a bigger hurdle than the Kiper, Jones, and especially Claiborne expected. Defensive back is typically one of the more difficult positions for guys to adjust to when they get to the pros.  Not only are cornerbacks matched against the most opponents most athletic player, when they get burned it stands out. Seahawk secondary coach, Paul Moyer, summarized the difficulties athletic corners often have transitioning to the NFL, stating:

"you can get away with using them. The guys who are gifted physically but maybe weren't great players in college and are a little slower learning - those guys struggle. They're the projects - the track guys who just have speed."

Add an endless string of injuries to the mix, (head, shoulder, wrist, and ankle...make sure you sing this to the head, shoulder, knees, and toes tune) and less than stellar play on the field, and you have a mighty expensive project on your hands.
Photo Credit:  The Boys are Back

Claiborne has underperformed at best to this point, and, at the least, just plain struggled in Monte Kiffin's Tampa 2 defense. Some have suggested that this system isn't suited for Claiborne's skill set, but after two difficult season even those excuses are running thin. Claiborne quickly lost his starting job midway through 2014 after being burned by San Diego Charger rookie wideout, Keenan Allen, who accumulated 80 yards in just 3 catches.

In fairness, Claiborne wasn't the only one who struggled in Dallas last season.  The Cowboys' defense ranked among the league's worst in every statistical category.  Everyone seemed to be a poor fit in Kiffin's old school defense.  

So, would it be dumb for the Carolina Panthers to trade the 92nd pick for   a guy that hasn’t shown a ton of promise yet? No. It wouldn’t be dumb, it would be high value trade that could just pay dividends for the Panthers.

Before we get into the logistics, let’s go ahead and get it out of the way...Don’t front like you didn’t want him bad in 2012! I’ll admit it. He was the guy I was hoping would somehow slip to the Panthers.  I knew it really wasn’t going to happen, but I wanted it to. I was secretly jealous of Cowboy fans experienced when their team made the big draft splash.

The Kuechly selection was a phenomenal pick that demonstrated Hurney’s knack for great 1st round picks and his canny ability to evaluate linebacker talent. Admit it, few saw the Panthers going after a middle linebacker in the 1st round, however. Most of us at the time, myself included, thought Beason was going to be the Panther mainstay in the middle. Hindsight is 20/20 though, and we can all celebrate the Golden Boy, Luke Kuechly and be thankful we weren’t the 0nes that traded the 1st and 2nd for Claiborne.

There are four reasons that the Carolina Panthers should trade a 3rd round pick for Claiborne.

1.      Moyer’s comments above apply particularly well to Claiborne. He was much more of a project than Dallas had expected. He’s had a tough time acclimating to the pros after a college career where he relied more on athleticism than skill. He then landed on a dysfunctional team that needed him to be superstar from the get go. Now this isn’t really too much to expect from a 6th round pick that you just sacrificed 1st and 2nd round picks, but it clearly was a little more than Claiborne could handle. The stage may just have been a little too big for the rookie, and the team too dysfunctional to nourish the rookie’s development.

2.                The Mike Mitchell Model: Claiborne’s situation is slightly reminiscent of Mike Mitchell’s in Oakland. Both were athletically talented guys who still needed development While Mitchell was wasn’t the high profile, top-ten pick Claiborne was, he also found himself on a dysfunctional team that has nourished anything but development for the last decade.  

Carolina is a place where guys like Claiborne can thrive. Mitchell, who has now proven himself as a starter, was also deemed a bust prior to arriving in Carolina. The Panthers have the structure that guys like Mitchell and Claiborne can develop.  The coaching staff coaxes a lot out of a little, and that dominant front seven doesn’t leave the secondary on that proverbial island too often. If the corners do find themselves on that island, they don’t have to stay there too long when the Kraken and Charles Johnson are prowling.

3.                Great Value: A 3rd for the #6th overall, not bad! Given the Panthers needs at other positions, many don’t think they will look to address the secondary until the 3rd round anyway. Will there be a corner at #92 in this year’s draft that has the potential Claiborne does? It’s possible, but not likely.

Claiborne is scheduled to make about 4.35 million dollars this year.  Now assuming the Panthers would have to pick up his contract that would be a significant amount against the cap, and we all know the Panthers are “cap challenged.”  Claiborne only has two years left on his contract, so the bet wouldn’t be long term.  The Panthers could essentially land a top talent for 3rd round money.

4.                Wouldn’t have to be a superstar:  Even if Claiborne didn’t turn out to be the next Patrick Peterson, he has the tools to be serviceable. I know everyone loved how great Captain Munnerlyn played last year, but he is 5’8.  Can you really match this guy up against a big bodied, fast receiver?  Do you want to see Melvin White on that island against Julio Jones or Calvin Johnson (yes, we play Detroit next year)?  Would it be better to field a 3rd round draft pick, who will have a guaranteed learning curve?  Claiborne has the tools to be effective, particularly in man coverage.  He has the size and speed to get it done if supported by a strong defense.  He wouldn’t need to be a superstar, he would just need to contribute.  Carolina’s front seven may help him look like one though, they did it for Munnerlyn anyway.

It all comes back to the Wonderlic I guess in the end.  Did Claiborne get caught up in the hype and glamor of 2012 draft and simply blow off the Wonderlic test entirely, or is he functionally illiterate?  I’m not sure if it should qualify as a smart trade for the Panthers, but you would think it would have to be a least a 15 out of 50 type move.