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Film Review: Chiefs CB Morris Claiborne

Taking a look at the positives and negatives of the Chiefs new cornerback.

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at New York Jets Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The Kansas City Chiefs finally made a cornerback move.

The Chiefs are adding free agent Morris Claiborne on a one-year, $1.5 million contract with another $1.5 million in incentives, barring a physical to come on Friday. Claiborne has been suspended for the first four games of 2019 for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy — so he won’t be available Week 1 — but he offers something at a position that Chiefs fans had some hand-wringing about.

The 29-year-old cornerback started his career with the Dallas Cowboys before signing two consecutive one-year deals with the New York Jets the past two years. He was injured late in the year in 2018, and the Jets let him become a free agent yet again. His pending suspension — with the appeal rejected just this week — and injury questions likely left him on the market this late in the offseason, but he’ll be another veteran add to the Chiefs cornerback room.

Claiborne may be a bit of a household name for some, but others may not know much about his ability as a cornerback over the last couple of years. With that in mind, we’ll take a look at his strengths as weaknesses as a cornerback and how he could fit into Steve Spagnuolo’s defensive scheme in 2019.

Strengths

Even though some have characterized Claiborne as a “press-man cornerback,” his good footwork shows up in his shuffle technique — a desired quality of a Spagnuolo cornerback.

The above play shows a man turn (opening to the boundary) with good inside leverage, and he’s able to gain good depth while still keeping his feet close to the ground to react to the receiver’s break. As the receiver runs the dig, Claiborne plants his outside foot and drives on the hip of the receiver. He locates the ball, gets his hand up and tips it into the air for one of his teammates to come up with the interception.

Claiborne doesn’t need to get his hands on the receiver to be effective from the boundary, but he’s quite good when he’s asked to do so. The above play shows a soft press with outside leverage.

Claiborne is patient on the break, drives both hands into the receiver’s chest, then climbs across the player to sit on his inside hip all within five yards of the line of scrimmage. He locates the ball while in phase with the receiver and once again is able to bat it up into the air for his teammate to come up with the interception.

Claiborne batted down 14 passes in 2018 to go with his two interceptions — as well as the two interceptions he created for his teammates above — and it’s due in no small part to his footwork and ability to locate the ball while staying in phase with the receiver. These traits could get him on the field in any scheme but are especially important in Spagnuolo’s.

At 5 feet 11 and 196 pounds, Claiborne might be viewed as a “smaller” player for a boundary cornerback. That said, he regularly makes plays at the catch point against bigger receivers. Up above, former Chief Kelvin Benjamin has a major size and weight advantage over Claiborne — perfect for picking on in the red zone.

Claiborne gets into a tight backpedal in a quarters scheme — very similar to the one Spagnuolo regularly ran in the red zone in New York — and opens his hips on the fade route. The quarterback puts the ball in an ideal spot, but Claiborne is able to drive quickly to the catch point and time his jump to get his hand on the ball while Benjamin is in the air. Claiborne rips through with his hand and knocks the ball free from the bigger receiver.

Claiborne regularly made plays in the red zone and on fourth-down situations in 2018, showing up in big moments for his team to create turnovers and keep points off the board.

While some Chiefs fans may remember Jamaal Charles truck-sticking Claiborne back in 2013, he’s overall a physical player that is aggressive in run support. That aggression translates when defending bubble screens as well.

From a flat or “feather” technique, Claiborne still shows some explosion to drive underneath on the above clip. With the nickel cornerback showing blitz, the quarterback audibles and sets up the bubble screen to Claiborne’s side of the field. He triggers on the throw, blowing up the lead blocker and driving through to the receiver for a tackle for no gain.

In a blitz-heavy scheme, you can’t have passive cornerbacks on the boundary. Quick throws and screens are the best ways to beat the blitz, and Claiborne being able to hold his own on the boundary in these situations is a good match for what Spagnuolo will want in his coverage defenders.

Weaknesses

One of the areas Claiborne has struggled as he’s gotten older is defending out routes, particularly when he decides to utilize a speed turn to drive on the route.

The above play shows a good shuffle to gain depth to the sticks on a third-and-long play. With his eyes in the backfield, he doesn’t do a good job “feeling” the route from the No. 1 receiver and is late to react. He then compounds his late reaction with a speed turn that gains further depth and rounds the transition well past the first-down marker. The result is the receiver getting an open look and time to run at the sticks to get the first down in a close game.

Although I showed his good click and close from a flat-footed technique earlier, he does show instances from his shuffle that leave something to be desired. Playing in a Cover 3-heavy scheme makes a cornerback to cover the deep third of the field often — and leaves some extra space for comebacks. However, Claiborne’s feel for the sticks and spacing on the route aren’t ideal in these third and long situations.

The above play shows Claiborne with another man turn and shuffle to gain depth. When the receiver stops to make his break, Claiborne actually does well to identify the route and begin his transition to drive underneath. However, the transition requires an extra gather-step to turn his hips and begin closing underneath. The result is a completion at the first-down marker, and the receiver able to extend the set of downs.

This transition is just a half-step away from a potential pass break up, getting the defense off the field. However, it shows up regularly enough to mention — along with his speed-turn transition — that it makes me wonder if his age and some injuries aren’t starting to catch up with him a little bit.

Penalties

One of the major negatives that comes up when it comes to Claiborne is his propensity for penalties. People recall major holding and pass interference penalties from early in his career and naturally relate them to the back-breaking penalties that Steven Nelson and Orlando Scandrick had on the boundary last year.

However, NFL Penalty Tracker tells a little bit different story the last two years. Claiborne had six penalties in 2018 — tied with Xavien Howard, Joe Haden, Tre’Davious White, Jalen Ramsey, and Xavier Rhodes — and seven in 2017 — tied with William Jackson, Patrick Peterson, Dre Kirkpatrick, Darius Slay, Rhodes, and Stephon Gilmore. Scandrick and Nelson totaled eight and nine penalties, respectively, last year.

On top of that, Claiborne averaged a paltry 1.75 penalty yards per game in 2018 and 4.13 penalty yards a game in 2017. Those numbers line up with players like Kyle Fuller and Denzel Ward in 2018, and they are right there with Slay and Ramsey in 2017. Nelson averaged 6.72 penalty yards a game in 2018, for reference.

Claiborne is not the type of lockdown player that Slay, Peterson, and Ramsey can be for their teams, but his penalty numbers line up with those types of players — ones that aren’t considered penalty magnets.

The bottom line

Morris Claiborne’s footwork, ball skills and aggression in run fits and driving on screens fit well into Steve Spagnuolo’s coverage schemes.

He may be getting slightly more labored in his transitions from his shuffle technique, but his football IQ helps him to break on the ball at the catch point. He’s a playmaker — both himself and for his teammates — and has a nose for the big play.

So what does this mean for the Chiefs cornerback room? Well, for starters, we should expect the front line of Bashaud Breeland, Charvarius Ward and Kendall Fuller to hold down their spots in the first four weeks of the season. I would expect a little bit of an “audition” through those weeks to determine which players keep their role from Week 5 and beyond.

Based on what we’ve heard and I’ve seen in camp thus far, a healthy Claiborne should push for a starting cornerback spot opposite Breeland. Should Ward show well in his transition from a press-man scheme to a zone-heavy scheme — and Fuller show poorly in the scheme — Breeland could move to the slot on nickel passing downs much like he did in Green Bay last year. If Fuller shows well in the slot, Ward could shift to the fourth cornerback and continue to grow under Spagnuolo and Dave Merritt.

Either way, this move improves the cornerback room and protects against a major injury after Week 5 of the regular season. The room is far from “fixed” — especially long term — but it gives it a bit more quality for the 2019 season and doesn’t cost an asset or break the bank.