On the first day in pads at training camp, Dallas Cowboys cornerback Morris Claiborne did something he probably would not — and could not — have done last year in camp.
He put his hands on a receiver and out-muscled him in coverage.
Terrance Williams didn’t stand a chance. Claiborne had him by the shoulder pads, put him off balance on his route, punched the ball out as it hit the receiver’s hands and then shoved him to the ground.
In a game, it might have been a penalty. But it wasn’t a game. It was a practice, and it is where Claiborne is getting a chance to demonstrate how much stronger he is than last year, and how much more physical he wants to be.
“A lot has changed, I feel like, from my rookie year to this year,” Claiborne said. “I feel more comfortable coming into this camp. I feel like my body is right. I feel like I’m healthy enough versus where I was last year.”
Where he was last year was a place of uncertainty. He was a No. 1 pick, but not just any No. 1 pick — the top defensive player in the draft, with value added because the Cowboys had traded away their second-round pick to move up and get him. But he was coming off wrist surgery, and it kept him from practicing that spring, so when he entered training camp, he was behind.
But he was going to start — ready or not.
“Last year, I was kind of on the fence about being ready, second-guessing myself,” Claiborne said. “But this year, there’s no second-guessing. I feel like I’m ready. And I’m just ready to go out and play.”
Claiborne said he added six pounds in the off-season and got stronger in the weight room. To go with his first true NFL off-season, he might be poised to deliver the kind of season he hoped to last year.
“You can see his size. He’s a little bigger,” secondary coach Jerome Henderson said. “And yes, you can see it in his play.… We’d like him to be stronger getting off blocks, stronger when he’s jamming people. He’s working in that direction.”
The true test of Claiborne’s new style is Dez Bryant.
It takes everything Claiborne has to be as physical with Bryant as Bryant is with him. Claiborne can keep up with Bryant’s speed when they battle one-on-one in coverage drills. But Bryant continues to consistently beat him to the ball with superior strength and quickness.
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said Claiborne doesn’t need to get discouraged by that. The Cowboys’ other cornerback, Brandon Carr, is bigger than Claiborne and also loses to Bryant.
“Mo is a physical player. He’s probably not quite as strong as Brandon is right now, but he is a physical guy,” Garrett said. “He has good length in his arm. He can be a really good press corner. And the other thing he has that a lot of the really good corners have is he can really run. So, when you can really run and catch up, you can be more aggressive at the line of scrimmage.”
Garrett said physical play comes from confident play.
“I think with Mo, the physical nature of his play will increase just with the confidence level,” he said. “The confidence level increases with his experience. Some guys play a certain way, and they’re playing OK; they’re playing to their ability. But then there’s the next level, and the next level. A lot of that has to do with your confidence.”
Backup cornerback Sterling Moore, a three-year veteran who has played in a Super Bowl with the New England Patriots, used the same word to describe the difference between Claiborne now and last year.
“He knows he can play at this level now,” Moore said. “He’s got a year under his belt. He’s got the confidence to go out there and know, especially going against Dez, one of the top five receivers in the league, that he can go up against anybody.”
Claiborne’s confidence shows in the way he talks about himself, also. Last year’s uncertainty is a distant memory.
“I feel like the expectations for me are very high, not only from myself, but from the coaches,” Claiborne said. “They’re looking for something way more than I put out last year. I’m looking for that from myself. I feel like I can go out and do that.”