The giant, gaping hole that was the Chiefs secondary last year has gotten a bit of a facelift since the end of the 2018 season. Ron Parker, Eric Berry, Orlando Scandrick, and Stephen Nelson are all on the outside and with or looking for different teams. The Chiefs promoted Charvarius Ward to starting corner and brought in Bashaud Breeland to help stabilize the starting rotation. Breeland, Ward, and Fuller are the top three at that position but the Chiefs still were in need of help at corner. Ward’s a relatively unknown commodity, Breeland played half a season in 2018 and was injured for a few games, and Fuller is currently battling injuries of his own, according to reports. Behind those three were unproven players in the NFL and rookies. Then Keith Reaser went down with a torn Achilles tendon and likely will not play this season. A position that was already thin now looked even worse for depth and with no help in sight what would the Chiefs do?
Morris Claiborne played the last few seasons for the New York Jets and in 2018, had one of his best seasons, in terms of statistics. He had 57 combined tackles (two for a loss), two interceptions (one for a touchdown), and 14 passes defended, which was the most in his career. Although he had one of his best seasons he was unsigned until this past week when the Chiefs decided it was in their best interest to bring him in and see what he could do to add depth and experience to a young group. Claiborne does currently have to serve a four-game suspension because he violated the league’s substance abuse policy, but he is appealing the decision and could have it reduced to two games.
If I had to I would guess that the Chiefs aren’t done adding to this position due to its general lack of depth. But in the meantime, I get to dive into a new Chiefs player and that always makes for a good time. Let’s get to it.
I didn’t watch all 15 games that Claiborne played in, I watched the games the Jets played that were against some of the better quarterbacks on their schedule. Five games in all, with the QBs being Stafford, Luck, Brady, Watson, and Rodgers. I figured that would give me the best opportunity to see him play against the best. I’ll tell you one thing, he loves to play physical.
Claiborne is very comfortable playing physically with a receiver. It aids him in the ground he has to cover if he’s playing off coverage. He gets his hands on the receiver then, as he goes to create separation and get across the middle of the field, Claiborne uses his close proximity to move with the receiver. When the ball is thrown, he’s already in the position to make a play on the ball and he’s there to force an incompletion. His physicality in close and footwork are what makes him a successful press-man coverage corner. Ian Warton also charted him as one of the best press-man corners in the NFL last season. If you don’t believe me here is the tweet:
His footwork in close also helps him stick with receivers as they try to break away. He isn’t looking to stride with them, so he uses a sort of stutter and keeps his legs underneath him. This helps him keep a mostly square frame which doesn’t easily let receivers run by him unless they want to be physical too. He knows how to use his hands and get them inside to re-route the receiver as well. Of course, this does come with the caveat of additional penalties for a player being a little too physical, but he fits the type of press ability that Spags and the staff are looking for. Here’s what I mean:
This is what I like seeing from Claiborne, especially in the red zone and on one of the best receivers in football. He knows that Hopkins is a big, physical receiver and he doesn’t back down in this situation. He jabs Hopkins at the line and forces him to the boundary side, which gives the receiver less room to work with. Then, he stays with him all the way into the end zone reading Hopkins’s body language and looking for his adjusting to the throw. As soon as he realizes the ball is coming, he gets his head around to make a play on it. Unfortunately, Hopkins’s hands are entirely too strong and even though Claiborne gets a hand on the ball at the catch point, it’s still caught for a touchdown. He did everything right, but a better catch beats the best coverage every time.
Hopkins was the best receiver that Claiborne faced in 2018 and although the stat line for Hopkins was monstrous, Claiborne limited his big-play ability when he was in coverage against him. He didn’t back down from the challenge of covering the bigger, more physical vertical threat that is Hopkins. I love that attitude in a corner. The 14-yard touchdown was the longest play he allowed while covering him and that kind of man coverage ability is what this defense needs going forward. Being a veteran in the NFL and the Chiefs having so much young depth at CB, he should be able to pass on his knowledge of being a press-man corner.
This was something I didn’t expect to find when I started watching Claiborne, his recovery speed deep. The receiver is running a post route, which becomes easy for him to get open on when there is no deep safety down the middle. 15 yards into his route he slants to the goal post and creates easy separation from Claiborne and it should be an easy touchdown for the offense. But Claiborne gets on his horse taking a great angle to where the ball is being thrown, he isn’t looking to just make the tackle, he’s going for the ball. He meets the receiver at the catch point and gets his hands in there to break up the pass. Impressive recovery from the 29-year-old veteran who has had his issues with injuries throughout his career.
All corners at some point or another are going to get beat, it’s a fact of the NFL and having that closing, long speed that Claiborne displayed is important. Not only to break up passes like the one shown but to keep up with a receiver streaking downfield. Being on the boundary, sometimes you aren’t going to have help over top and you’ll be on an island. Having the speed to keep up downfield, paired with his man-coverage ability is a good thing to have in any defense.
Being a former first-round draft pick, some may wonder why he was still unsigned coming into August. Yes, he does have that suspension that we talked about but NFL teams have shown that if you are an exceptional player, suspensions carry little weight as to signing you. There are a few things in his game that he is clearly lacking in, and being a football player means you need to be able to tackle. This is by no means his worst trait or his best trait but somewhere in the middle.
Claiborne may be a physical man-coverage corner but when it comes to tackling, you aren’t going to see him level or stick many guys. He prefers to be a bit craftier with how he brings guys down. Here he breaks on the throw and gets to the back, then appears to sort of fall over in the process. He still manages to keep the runner in front of him, gets his hands or at least a hand on the runner and finds a way to get him out of bounds. This is one example of many different ways he finds to get tackles. Whether it’s shoe-string tackles, tripping a runner up, holding on to allow others to come to finish the tackle, or even bringing the runner down on his own if he has to, he finds ways to. But this isn’t the best way to go about tackling, which leads to both missed tackles and ball carriers breaking them.
Speaking of ball carriers, that brings me to my next point. Run defense. This is not his strong suit, and you’re about to see exactly what I mean. Prepare yourself, because this could actually hurt to watch. (I found one of the worst run plays to show you what I saw.)
During my tape review I saw many run plays where Claiborne would guess where the ball is going, lose the ball in the backfield, or go to the wrong hole completely, but this example has to top them all; you can see him watch the pulling blockers come through the hole that was created to make way for the running back and then he just decides he wants no part of it or thinks the back is going to bounce it outside when he has two linemen leading the way for him. Either way, it is a terrible look for him and then he is forced to begin chasing the play down from behind.
Corners aren’t brought in for their run defense alone, but it would be nice to see him at least try a bit more to engage, or at the very least dive into the hole and force something. It’s most likely gonna hurt, but this is football and sometimes it’s gonna hurt. This is an extreme example of his underwhelming run defense, but all in all, he isn’t a solid run defender. He makes some tackles and every once in a while you’ll see him get a tackle for a loss, but it isn’t something that comes naturally to him. Finally, let’s take a look at where he can be taken advantage of most.
His click-and-close isn’t a great aspect of his game, so underneath routes and out routes when in off coverage can give him a fair bit of trouble. Here, the Patriots motion Edelman in next to the receiver and on the snap send him on a drag route. There were no defenders in his way to get to Edelman, but he doesn’t have that short-area burst to needed keep up with him. Then he compounds the issue with taking a bad angle and looking to get in front of the throw, but it was too late. After the easy throw and catch, Edelman is off to the races for a 30+ yard gain.
If that looks familiar, it’s because the Patriots exploited the same kind of thing in the Chiefs corners last year. They used motion to get Edelman a free release and into open field frequently and that’s where Claiborne struggles. When in off coverage you need to be able to diagnose and close quickly. Claiborne just doesn’t have that lateral quickness to keep up with some of the faster receivers that offenses can match him up with when he’s in off coverage.
While Claiborne hasn’t lived up to his draft pick spot, there aren’t very many picks that do, unfortunately. That doesn’t mean he’s a bad player, and last season was the best he’s played and one of the more healthy seasons he’s had in recent years. Because of his superior man coverage skills, he is worth the very small contract he received from the Chiefs, even if he’s nothing but depth. The corner position is full of young players that could use the knowledge and veteran leadership he’ll provide. It might also benefit him to play with an old teammate in Tyrann Mathieu from their LSU days. Playing for a championship-caliber team for the first time in his career (with a real shot this year to win a Super Bowl) could also bring out some of that desire to play better as his career starts to turn toward the back nine.
He’s not an elite player by any stretch, but if he is mostly asked to come in and play as a press-man corner, he could surprise some people with his abilities. I’m not saying he’s going to come in and be a world-beater, but he has some aspects of his game that could really help this team. Whether playing in a game or mentoring some of the younger guys, it’s good experience to have around. Considering the lack of experienced depth on the Chiefs roster at corner this move made sense, and I still expect them to look to add at least one more corner to the fold in the coming weeks.