INDIANAPOLIS: Four weeks ago, Hanford Dixon took center stage at the Greater Cleveland Sports Awards and declared that the Browns need to find another standout cornerback to pair with Joe Haden.
Those who agree might fantasize about Louisiana State’s Morris Claiborne, the top-rated corner in this year’s draft, coming to Cleveland. If the Browns pull off a surprise by picking a defensive player fourth overall, it could become a reality.
Dixon and Frank Minnifield formed one of the best cornerback tandems in NFL history when they played for the Browns in the 1980s. Although the Browns finished with the league’s second-ranked pass defense last season, Dixon still believes more work must be done to bolster the secondary.
“I think they’re gonna be an elite unit, but you’ve gotta get some more players back there,” Dixon said. “We need another corner.”
Starting corner Sheldon Brown is set to enter his 11th NFL season. Meanwhile, nickel corner Dimitri Patterson is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent on March 13, though coach Pat Shurmur said work is being done to retain him.
Regardless, the Browns’ most urgent needs are on offense. But they haven’t ruled out the possibility of addressing the other side of the ball early in the first round.
When asked last week whether it’s safe to say the Browns will nab an offensive player with their top pick, Shurmur said: “I wouldn’t say that. We’re trying to decide who we like at this point.”
The 5-foot-11, 188-pound Claiborne is the only defender who’s widely projected to be picked in the top five on April 26. He’s confident he’ll be able to make an immediate impact, much like former LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson did last season with the Arizona Cardinals.
“I know the NFL is a whole different level from college,” Claiborne said Sunday at the NFL Scouting Combine. “I’m gonna have to come in and pick up on that, but I believe I can.”
Claiborne has shown his ability to adapt. LSU first tabbed him as a wide receiver, but he switched to corner at the request of Peterson.
“Growing up, I was mainly an offensive guy,” Claiborne said. “I didn’t play too much defense, just here and there. I never really played corner until I got to college, and when I got to college, I was still trying not to get on the defensive side of the ball, but Patrick kept on pulling at me.
“He was always saying, ‘You’ve gotta come play corner, you’ve gotta come play corner.’ Every day at practice that’s what he was telling me. ‘You’re a corner, you’re a corner.’ I took his advice and the coaches [did] as well. It turned out well for me.”
Coincidentally, Florida’s coaches considered using Haden as a quarterback or a receiver before changing their minds and ultimately making him the first true freshman in Gator history to start at corner. Claiborne said he doesn’t really know much about Haden.
“I know he’s a good player, though,” Claiborne said.
The Browns had not talked to Claiborne at the combine as of late Sunday afternoon, when he spoke to reporters. He had his first set of meetings scheduled for Sunday night, but he said he didn’t know which teams were on his agenda.
Claiborne played primarily in man-to-man coverage, which the Browns use the majority of the time. Still, Claiborne believes he can fit into any defensive scheme, and NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock agrees.
“You can plug him and play him in just about any defense, press man, off man, zone,” Mayock said.
Those close to Claiborne believe his versatility and athletic ability will help him excel in a similar fashion to Peterson.
“He’s tremendous,” LSU running back Brandon Taylor said of Claiborne. “Coming in and out of breaks, [he’s] as fast as anybody I’ve seen.”
LSU cornerback Ron Brooks said Claiborne is a great teammate, too. He knows how to take care of business without taking himself too seriously.
“On the field, Mo is a competitor,” Brooks said. “He goes out and he wants to do his best at every drill, every coverage, every technique. He wants to be the best he can be. Off the field, he’s a much different person. Goofy, likes to joke a lot.
“It’s just his personality. He’ll run up behind you if you’re talking to somebody and make gestures behind you. [There are] just little things he’ll say or do that are just really funny.”
Claiborne will be all business Tuesday when defensive backs work out at the combine. He said he plans on going through all the drills except for the bench press because he suffered a wrist injury this past season.
Claiborne said he hopes to run the 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds. Peterson posted a time of 4.34 seconds last season, and Claiborne certainly wouldn’t mind topping it.
“We’re competitive and we’re always trying to make each other better,” Claiborne said. “Making each other better means if this guy does something, you have to do it better than him. And he’s gonna come back and try to do it better than you.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Read the Browns blog at http://browns.ohio.com Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/browns.abj.