FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Morris Claiborne came to the New York Jets intent on being their No. 1 cornerback — and an elite player at his position.
He’s got that first goal locked down. Being mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Richard Sherman, Patrick Peterson and Chris Harris? Well, he’s still got work to do.
“I can’t rank myself nowhere right now,” Claiborne said. “I’m not a Pro Bowler yet. Those guys are three-time, four-time Pro Bowlers. I’m working to get there, but I don’t feel like I’m far behind.”
Claiborne has that potential, though, and that’s what made him the No. 6 overall pick by Dallas out of LSU in the 2012 draft.
Injuries have been the toughest opponent for him to tackle, with a laundry list of maladies from a sprained knee to a torn left patellar tendon to a severe groin injury preventing him from living up to his lofty draft status. The Jets took a shot on him with a one-year, $5 million deal in the offseason to replace Darrelle Revis as their top cornerback.
So far, so good.
“The biggest thing is he’s healthy,” coach Todd Bowles said recently. “We knew what kind of player he was. He plays hard, he plays hard every play. He’s quiet out there, he does his job, he’s very professional, he’s good with the other cornerbacks. We like everything he’s brought to us.”
Claiborne has started all seven games this season, often lining up against opposing teams’ best receivers. He has six passes defensed, an interception and 29 tackles.
“It’s been OK,” Claiborne said. “It can be a lot better. I feel like, so far, I’ve left a couple of plays out there that I wish I could have back. But so far, it’s been solid, but it definitely can improve.”
He faces a tough task this Sunday in Atlanta’s Julio Jones, who scored his first touchdown of the season last week in a loss to New England. Claiborne will likely play a large role as New York tries to keep Jones out of the end zone at MetLife Stadium.
“You love those moments being a cornerback, to go out and guard the best receiver on the other side,” Claiborne said. “You look forward to that. That’s what you want every game.”
Physically, though, it would appear to be a mismatch between the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Jones and the 5-11, 192-pound Claiborne.
“When you’ve got a guy of his magnitude, a guy of his size, his speed, his ability to do the things that he does on a football field, which is getting out of routes, can run the whole route tree and a guy who’s a deep ball threat, it makes it hard to guard him,” Claiborne said. “But, it’s going to be a dogfight.”
Claiborne hopes to have finally put his injury woes in the past, and has spent the past two offseasons working with a trainer — something he never did earlier in his career. He figured he worked out enough on his own, but Denver cornerback Aqib Talib told him about a trainer he used in the Dallas area named Ronnie Braxton.
Claiborne gave Braxton a call, and the trainer had him go through an aggressive program that mixes Pilates and boxing and cardio work.
“It’s definitely frustrating when you can’t go out and show anybody what you can do because you’re on the sideline and you’re looking in,” Claiborne said. “That’s when you have to look yourself in the mirror and change the way you’re doing certain things.”
So, he got himself in better shape, but bad-luck injuries still hampered him last season, such as the groin and rib ailments he dealt with.
“Some of those injuries are out of your control and how they happen,” he said. “When they do happen, I just look at myself and say, ‘How can I get better? I’m down, what do I have to do to get myself better?’
“I’ve never been a quitter and I’ll never quit on myself.”
Still only 27, Claiborne has tons of potential and could be part of the Jets’ future on defense. A solid performance Sunday against Jones could go a long way in helping him establish himself in New York — and in that discussion about the top cornerbacks in the NFL.
“When you have a top receiver in the league that comes in, you want those challenges,” Claiborne said. “If you don’t want those challenges, you shouldn’t be playing cornerback in this league. Those are the moments you live for.”
NOTES: CB Buster Skrine (concussion), DE Muhammad Wilkerson (shoulder/foot), RT Brandon Shell (neck) and TE Jordan Leggett (knee) all didn’t practice, but Bowles wouldn’t rule any of them out against Atlanta. RB Matt Forte (knee) was limited. … Forte, in his 10th NFL season, says he’s unsure how much longer he wants to play after this year. “I think after 10, you kind of take it year-by-year after that, see how you feel,” he said. “I want to be able to walk when I’m older.”