IRVING — Receiver Dez Bryant scored a touchdown on a slant route against cornerback Morris Claiborne early in the Dallas Cowboys’ minicamp practice Wednesday and shouted, “That’s money!”Bryant would then take it to the next level with two ridiculous circus catches on Claiborne, including a leaping one-hander in the end zone.On first blush, it would appear that Claiborne had a rough day.Leave it to the modest and now all-knowing Bryant, however, to put it in perspective.“That is credit to the great defenses and the coverage,” Bryant said of why he had to make a tough catch. “He is putting pressure on me and making it difficult for me to make the catch. So you can’t take that away. I’m just trying my best to make a play.”Bryant made the spectacular catches, but that Claiborne was in position to make them tough — and that he is on the field at all — are considered positives for the Cowboys’ 2012 first-round draft pick.Remember, Claiborne missed the entire off-season program last tear, including the rookie and veteran minicamps, because he was rehabbing from wrist surgery.The hopes the Cowboys had of him making an immediate difference took a hit as a result.Claiborne, whose skills were compared to those of Deion Sanders, started 15 games as a rookie and had a decent season. He had only one interception and no big plays. Even he admits that it wasn’t close to his dominant performances at LSU, which prompted the Cowboys to move up from No. 14 and take him with the sixth overall pick.“Knowing the type of player I could be and I felt like I wasn’t that player I could have been [not] having the off-season,” Claiborne said. “There were a lot of times, when a ball was thrown, I felt like I was stuck in mud because I couldn’t really get out and get to it.”With one year of experience, Claiborne said he expects to make a huge jump as a player in 2013.“I’m a lot more comfortable,” Claiborne said. “Last year I was searching to find a place because I didn’t have an off-season. Now it is what it is. I’m a lot more comfortable just because I’m out here having the opportunity to get better.”Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said Claiborne is much further along than he was at this time last year. “At different times he had some rough spells,” Garrett said. “I thought he did a really good job during the season fighting through those and really coming out the other end, and I think he has an off-season to process how his rookie year went and come back with a new mindset, a more confident mindset. He’s bigger and stronger than he was last year. He just needs to take the next step. He’s working very hard to do that.”Diet and strength training have helped Claiborne add 6 pounds to his frame, as well as noticeable muscle definition.“He is a lot stronger,” Bryant said. “You can tell by looking at him. He is real tough. That’s what I love. He is adding an element to his game, that is, being more physical.“He already has the eye for the ball. He has the hands of a receiver. He is just putting pieces together to be one of the best in the league.”Said secondary coach Jerome Henderson: “You deal with some big physical receivers here. He has to be stronger to be able to deal with that. The battles with Dez are good. They are going to pay dividends during the season.”Those dividends can be seen every day in practice with his ability to jam receivers, reroute them and limit separation, despite Bryant’s circus catches.Last year, Claiborne said, “receivers were getting too much separation from me. This year, I feel more comfortable with it. I can feel a difference when the ball is thrown. I’m not hesitating. I’m just moving. It’s like everything is coming natural versus last year, when I was kind of stuck in the mud a little bit.”To that end, he said he welcomes the challenges from Bryant on a daily basis. He asks for the matchup even when it’s not his turn to go.“Going up against him every day, I can’t do nothing but get better,” Claiborne said.Bryant said that goes both ways, no matter how one-sided it looks in practice.
Clarence E. Hill Jr. 817-39-7760 Twitter: @clarencehilljr