FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Close.
And getting closer.
This was how Morris Claiborne responded when asked to compare himself to the elite cornerbacks in the NFL.
“I can’t rank myself nowhere right now. I’m not a Pro Bowler yet,” he said Wednesday in the New York Jets’ locker room. “Those guys are three-time and four-time Pro Bowlers. I’m working to get there, but I don’t feel like I’m far behind.”
Claiborne can boost his stature on Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons if Jets coach Todd Bowles and defensive coordinator Kacy Rodgers decide to assign their No. 1 corner to all-world wide receiver Julio Jones. It could be a reputation-changer for Claiborne, who’s still trying to distance himself from the “talented, but oft-injured” label that marked his time with the Dallas Cowboys.
“When you have a top receiver in the league that comes in, you want those challenges,” said Claiborne, the sixth overall draft pick in 2012. “If you don’t want those challenges, you shouldn’t be playing cornerback in this league. Those are the moments you live for.”
Clairborne has been one of the bright spots for the Jets, but this is the week when they need him to be a young Darrelle Revis. He’s their only healthy, proven starter at cornerback.
Morris Claiborne has had some success in his past against Falcons star Julio Jones. Josh D. Weiss/USA TODAY Sports
Buster Skrine (concussion) is a question mark, meaning their top three corners for this game probably will be Clairborne, Darryl Roberts and Juston Burris, a former fourth-round pick who could be summoned from the witness protection program. None of them play the slot, so Bowles will have to perform lineup “gymnastics” (his word) to fill the void. Their fourth and fifth corners are Robert Nelson (just up from the practice squad) and rookie Derrick Jones.
The Jets are thin even with a healthy Skrine, so it will be interesting to see if they do anything before next week’s trading deadline. Jeremy Lane, the Seattle Seahawks’ slot corner, was benched this week and could be on the block. Justin Bethel is in a similar situation with the Arizona Cardinals. Bowles coached Bethel in Arizona, so there’s a connection. Byron Maxwell is a free agent, having been cut this week by the Miami Dolphins.
Frankly, it would be a surprise if the Jets, in rebuilding mode, part with a draft pick.
For now, they have to figure out a way to extend the Falcons’ offensive funk. Jones is putting up decent numbers (34 catches, 466 yards), but he didn’t score his first touchdown until last week. But don’t believe the numbers; he’s still a freakishly talented player with tremendous size at 6-foot-3.
“He’s a bear,” Bowles said.
Jones moves around the formation and runs 26 percent of his routes from the slot — a problem for the Jets. They can have Claiborne shadow him everywhere or they can cook up a two-pronged game plan, depending on the formation and down and distance. Me? I’d mix up the coverages. On certain downs, I’d double Jones with a corner and safety and put Claiborne on another receiver. That’s no knock on Claiborne, it’s just a reality: You can’t leave Jones in single coverage on every play.
Clearly, Claiborne believes he’s up for the challenge. In 2015 he did a solid job on Jones, holding him to four catches for 41 yards on eight targets.
“I’ll shadow the best receivers if it was up to me,” Claiborne said. “I love those type of matchups. I look forward to those type of matchups. It’s either you’re going to stand up or you’re going to stand down. You’re going to put yourself on — or not.”