The Buccaneers have been bad on defense for years. Whatever the front office has tried to do to fix that side of the ball in recent years hasn’t worked out in most cases, leaving the team in a place where it needs to make more moves this offseason.
Tampa Bay has holes all over the defense, but in today’s free agent spotlight, we’re looking at someone who could be a welcomed presence in the secondary: veteran cornerback Morris Claiborne.
There’s familiarity between Claiborne and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, as the two were together with the Jets during the last two seasons. Could Claiborne be following his former coach to Tampa this offseason? Let’s take a look at the possibility.
Morris Claiborne’s Career
Claiborne spent 2009-2011 at LSU, starting 26 games over the final two seasons. He was named a unanimous All-American in addition to winning the Jim Thorpe Award and SEC Defensive Player of the Year in his final year with the Tigers. That led to a lot of hype for the 5-foot-11 corner. The Cowboys traded up and selected him sixth overall in the 2012 NFL Draft. Dallas scouts had only one defensive back ever rank higher than Claiborne on their draft board: Deion Sanders. Those expectations are ridiculously high.
Unfortunately for both sides, Claiborne never lived up to those expectations in Dallas. In five seasons, he played 47 games. He totaled 151 tackles (126 solo), three tackles for loss, 27 passes defended, four interceptions, four fumble recoveries and a forced fumble. Playing in 47 out of 80 games in five years is definitely disappointing for a top-10 pick, so it’s safe to say the Cowboys’ comparison between Claiborne and Sanders didn’t end well.
After disappointing in Dallas, Claiborne signed a one-year deal with the Jets. While with New York, he experienced a bit of a revival as far as health and performance go. In 2017, he racked up 43 tackles (34 solo), one interception and eight passes defended while starting 15 games. From there, he signed a one-year extension with the Jets for the 2018 season. Last year was a career year for the former All-American. He totaled career-highs in tackles (57, 44 solo), interceptions (two) and passes defended (14). In his two years with New York, Claiborne had 100 tackles (78 solo), three interceptions and 22 passes defended, all while starting 30 of a possible 32 games.
Why The Buccaneers Need Him
It’s no secret that Tampa Bay needs help in the secondary. More specifically, the team could use some veteran help. Without getting into the youth at the safety position, you can just tell from the existing cornerbacks on the roster that there isn’t a lot of experience there. With Brent Grimes heading for free agency (or retirement?), the Bucs presumably have Carlton Davis and Vernon Hargreaves III set at the two corner spots right now. Davis is heading into year two, while Hargreaves is going into year four after missing 15 games with an injury in 2018.
Simply put, the secondary needs help. Claiborne should be a reasonable option for Tampa Bay. The 29-year-old isn’t one of the top names on the market, but he’s more than serviceable. He would give the secondary a nice veteran presence while Davis continues to develop and the team figures out what it wants to do with fellow 2018 draftee M.J. Stewart.
What Will Claiborne Cost?
Since his initial four-year rookie contract, Claiborne has only been signed to one-year deals. He signed a one-year, $3 million contract with the Cowboys in 2016 before inking a one-year deal worth $5 million with the Jets in 2017. After proving he could stay healthy for a good 15 games, he got a one-year, $7 million contract with New York in 2018. Considering he was healthy for 15 games last year, he could be looking for something in that range and potentially a little higher in 2019. However, with his injury history, he probably won’t be getting a long-term contract at the age of 29. He could get a multi-year deal, but anything more than two years would likely be risky.
Projecting Claiborne’s market value is difficult. What he can get likely depends on how the rest of the market shakes out. Pro Football Focus has him ranked as the No. 9 corner in free agency, while Bleacher Report has him at No. 7. If the top corners are getting huge deals, Claiborne might be able to take advantage of it. But if the market moves slow, he could be a steal.
Will It Happen?
Whether this signing is realistic or not really depends on how the market plays out. The Bucs don’t have a ton of cap space to work with, so if teams are willing to overpay for Claiborne, they aren’t in a good position to compete with that. But if Claiborne comes at a reasonable price tag, Tampa Bay should be interested. Even if the team wants to draft another young corner in April, having Claiborne around would help them develop the youth they have rather than throw the young guys straight into the fire. The veteran’s familiarity with Bowles will help as well. Overall, Claiborne is a guy to keep your eye on this spring.