Sam Mellinger

Chiefs sign cornerback Morris Claiborne, a nice, obvious and smart start

The Chiefs’ Thursday signing of Morris Claiborne is so logical, obvious and smart that the news broke while I was on paragraph No. 6 of my Why The Chiefs Should And Probably Will Sign Morris Claiborne Soon column.

Claiborne is expected to take (and pass) a physical on Friday and won’t play in the team’s first preseason game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Arrowhead Stadium on Saturday. He is also suspended the first four regular-season games for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy, and has an injury history that’s kept him from playing all 16 games in any of his seven pro seasons.

So, that’s the bad news.

The good: Claiborne is a human who plays cornerback in the NFL, which makes him a good signing for the Chiefs, who could still use another human or two who can play cornerback in the NFL.

The position should be more productive than a year ago, when a wicked combination of lack of support from the safeties and lack of creativity from the scheme consistently put the corners in losing positions.

If nothing else, Tyrann Mathieu’s playmaking and Juan Thornhill’s range should give the cornerbacks a better platform.

But it remains true that a position in need of an upgrade did not receive one in the offseason. That was an unfortunate product of circumstance, with the Chiefs trading the first-round pick that had been earmarked for a cornerback to land defensive lineman Frank Clark.

Particularly with the imbalance of importance between stopping the run and pass, cornerback play is the most likely fatal flaw in a season that will be viewed by many as a disappointment if it ends before the Super Bowl.

The position was already desperate for depth before Tremon Smith moved to running back, and before Keith Reaser suffered an Achilles injury.

Claiborne is a boon. He was a star at LSU (where he played in the same secondary as Mathieu), and the Cowboys traded up to select him sixth overall. His pro career has yet to gain traction.

He has lined up mostly on the outside, and according to Pro Football Focus gave up 14.7 yards per catch, 8.3 per pass, and a passer rating of 89.7 when targeted in coverage last year. His 62.7 overall grade ranked 60th among 79 corners to play more than half of their team’s snaps. He also recorded a career-high two interceptions and 11 passes broken up.

So, in short: a veteran with flaws and some upside, which is one of the profiles any needy team should be seeking this time of year.

August is perhaps Chiefs general manager Brett Veach’s favorite month for trades. Last year, moments before the last preseason game, he upgraded the cornerback position by trading for Charvarius Ward.

That should and likely will be the template for another addition, if it happens — to trade from a position of strength to lift a position of weakness.

Ward had an unusual and encouraging rookie season, starting the last four games including the playoffs and coming within a Dee Ford offsides penalty of what would’ve been the Chiefs’ most legendary interception since Emmett Thomas in Super Bowl IV.

He is athletic and long, and even with the unpredictability of young corners has the most upside of anyone in the group.

That is what Veach is likely looking for now. Someone they liked coming out of college but did not acquire for whatever reason. Someone stuck toward the bottom of a talented or deep cornerback group on a team with needs that line up with the Chiefs’ strengths — defensive line or receiver, most obviously.

This is an NFL contender’s version of tidying up the house before the party, of taking one last lap through every room to straighten the magazines and wipe the counters and pick up socks.

The Chiefs have every look of a winner no matter what. The offense is a spaceship that actually might be even better than last year. The defense was so bad it proved to be the only one in the league that could stop Patrick Mahomes, but it has been completely made over in coaching and scheme. It has been largely made over in personnel.

The NFL is a volatile business, and one of the few certainties is that somebody will vastly underperform. But the Chiefs are literally a good bet to be in the small circle of strong Super Bowl contenders without another move.

Still, history tells us another move is likely, and done right, improvement to the secondary could be the difference between another playoff loss and a season that will be remembered forever.

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.