Craig: Cornerback Claiborne could fill Vikings' worst gap

  • Article by: MARK CRAIG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 25, 2012 - 7:12 AM

Sure, Matt Kalil is the safe pick and Justin Blackmon is intriguing, but a historically bad secondary needs immediate help.

We've all said it at some point during this mind-numbing and seemingly endless NFL draft buildup.

"Matt Kalil," we've said, "makes the most sense for the Vikings."

But as my teenage daughter would say, "Really? ... Seriously?"

I've picked the Southern California left tackle in two mock drafts and could make it 3-for-3 at No. 3 on Thursday. But it still doesn't make better sense to me than Louisiana State cornerback Morris Claiborne. Especially now that General Manager Rick Spielman claims the Vikings have "exactly the same grade" on Kalil, Claiborne and Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon.

Don't get me wrong. Kalil would be an excellent pick at a position of need for a team that hasn't taken an offensive lineman in the first round since 2002.

But let's revisit the 2011 season while counting the ways that Claiborne, a defensive playmaker at the team's biggest position of need, is the one who actually makes better sense.

1. Despite a league-high 50 sacks, the Vikings allowed opponents to post a 107.6 passer rating. That's second-worst in NFL history behind only the 0-16 Detroit Lions of 2008 (110.9).

2. The Vikings tied a franchise record for fewest interceptions (eight) while setting an NFL record for consecutive games without a pick (nine). Opposing quarterbacks completed 72.1 percent of their passes (212 of 294) for 2,647 yards, 27 touchdowns and no interceptions between Oct. 9 and Christmas Eve.

3. Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, Detroit's Matthew Stafford and Chicago's Jay Cutler went 5-0 against the Vikings while completing 72.3 percent of their passes for 1,457 yards, 13 touchdowns, no interceptions and an average passer rating of 125.3.

4. In a 42-20 victory at the Metrodome on Dec. 18, Saints quarterback Drew Brees became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for 400 yards (412) and five touchdowns while completing 80 percent of his passes (32 of 40). And he did it while sitting out the final 12 minutes.

5. In a 26-23 overtime victory at the Metrodome on Sept. 25, Stafford erased a 20-0 halftime deficit by completing 22 of 30 passes for 314 yards and two touchdowns.

6. In a 33-27 victory at the Metrodome on Oct. 23, Rodgers completed 17 of 20 passes in the first half. The only incompletions: two drops and one spike to stop the clock.

7. In a 35-32 victory at the Metrodome on Dec. 4, Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, of all imperfect passers, came within nine points of reaching the perfect passer rating of 158.3. He went 6-for-9 for 179 yards and two touchdowns in the second half. His targets were so ridiculously wide open, Vikings defensive tackle Kevin Williams told reporters after the game, "Shoot, you guys might have been able to hit those receivers."

8. An already pass-happy NFC North got pass-happier when the Bears traded for Pro Bowl receiver Brandon Marshall.

Left tackle is an important position that's difficult to fill with an elite player. But it's not like there was a weekly jailbreak of pass rushers pouring past Charlie Johnson last season. On the flip side, there was a weekly jailbreak of wide-open receivers romping unchaperoned through the Vikings secondary.

The Vikings have since added Chris Carr and Zack Bowman in free agency. They will also get Antoine Winfield (injury) and Chris Cook (legal issues) back this season.

Frankly, that's not enough to dismiss Claiborne. Not in this division.

"Mo Claiborne is maybe one of the more talented corners I've seen come out in a long time," Spielman said. "And you look at the quarterbacks we play and the receivers that we play in this division, to have a shutdown corner also is intriguing."

Considering how much detail goes into stacking Spielman's draft board, it's hard to believe him when he says all three players are "exactly even." The Vikings should take whichever player they have ranked higher, regardless of position.

Thinking the Vikings should pick Kalil because they might not get another chance to pick a left tackle this high in the future is foolishly ignoring the recent past and just how historically awful the secondary was in 2011.

Mark Craig • mcraig@startribune.com

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