FLORHAM PARK, N.J. - Morris Claiborne never really got a chance to prove his worth in Dallas, not before he was labelled just another first-round bust. The more his injuries mounted, the worse that sixth overall pick the Cowboys used on him in 2012 looked.
But all Claiborne ever wanted was a chance to show what he could do when he was fully healthy, lined up against the NFL's best receivers.
On Sunday, against the Atlanta Falcons and Julio Jones, he finally gets his chance.
"You want those challenges," the 27-year-old Jets cornerback said this week. "If you don't want those challenges, you shouldn't be playing cornerback in this league. Those are the moments you live for."
It's been a long time coming for Claiborne, and there is no doubt this is an enormous moment. With Buster Skrine likely out with a concussion, Claiborne will undoubtedly draw the majority of the burden of stopping Jones, easily one of the two or three best receivers in the NFL. And not only is Claiborne mostly healthy, but he's in the midst of his finest season. Scouts around the league have raved about how his play is finally matching his potential.
And offensive coordinators and opposing quarterbacks have clearly taken notice, since it seems they rarely throw to his side.
That's exactly what the Jets were hoping for, of course, when they took an offseason flier on the former Cowboy with a low-risk, one-year, $5 million deal. Faced with having to replace the departed (and declining) Darrelle Revis, the Jets gambled that Claiborne would thrive in a new setting and would finally live up to his potential.
So far the gamble has paid off.
"The biggest thing is he's healthy," Jets head coach Todd Bowles said. "We knew what kind of player he was. 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's health has been huge, considering how unhealthy he has been during his first five NFL seasons. Thanks to a long list of injuries, including to his wrist, knees, shoulder, groin, and even a concussion, he's never played a full, 16-game season and hasn't played more than 11 since he played 15 in his rookie year. Twice he played less than half of his team's games.
So yes, the Jets have their fingers crossed that Claiborne's body holds up over the final nine games. But if it does, he's proven to be exactly what this young secondary needs -- a top cornerback with an upside who, if they choose to re-sign him in the offseason, could be a fixture in their defensive backfield for several years.
First things first, though. Claiborne has a tough task ahead against Jones, who despite the downturn in his numbers this season is still the best receiver the Jets have faced this year.
"They can put him anywhere on the field and he'll run routes from everywhere," Claiborne said. "You have some guys where they are only outside, or an X receiver. You can put him anywhere in the formation and he's able to produce.
When you got a guy of his magnitude, a guy of his size, his speed, his ability to do the things he does on a football field, and a guy who's also a deep-ball threat, it makes it hard to guard him."
"It's going to be a dog-fight."
And it's a fight Claiborne desperately wants.
"I'll shadow all 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."
And if he lives up to the hype, maybe he'll finally get what he's always wanted: Consideration as one of the top cornerbacks in the league. Bowles said he believes Claiborne "has that ability, (but) to say he will do it, that remains to be seen."
"I'm not a Pro-Bowler yet," Claiborne said. "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."