The word out of Detroit was that Lions fans were happy to see linebacker Chris Claiborne leave. The word in Minnesota is that fans are glad he left Detroit for the Vikings, as well.
That's typical reaction to NFL free agency, but when it comes to the people that really know, Detroit and Minnesota are in agreement. Those in Detroit who follow the Lions on a regular basis still believe strongly in Claiborne's talent. And now, most importantly, so do the Vikings coaches after seeing him in minicamp.
"The addition of Claiborne, I was excited about it when it happened and I'm even more excited about it now after seeing and working with him," said Vikings linebacker coach Brian Baker, who was the defensive line coach in Detroit when Claiborne first entered the NFL as a first-round draft choice after leaving Southern California a year early. "He's a lot more professional about the game than when he was a young guy and I was with him last. Being a young guy, he (still) brings the experience of an established veteran. You kind of get the best of both worlds. He won't even be 25 when he gets back here for training camp. He's been in the league for four years. He came out early and was young going in."
That was the assessment in Detroit as well -- Claiborne is talented, but he didn't always have the focus. Claiborne didn't really want to get into all of reasons for leaving the Lions.
"I'm going to leave the past there," Claiborne told VU. "The good thing is I get to play them (the Lions) a couple times a year. With the offense that we have, I'm going to get a lot more opportunities to make big plays in the game. That's what I'm looking forward to."
He's also looking forward to moving around in the Vikings defense.
"I'm just moving around a lot more so nobody can key on me. There are so many chances to do that that as the season goes on, they (the opponents) are not going to be able to game plan me. It'll be fun and exciting.
"I think here they're allowing me to move around more, playing on the ball, off the ball."
One of the reasons he reportedly left Detroit is that he wanted to be a middle linebacker. But the Vikings made no promises to him. He will play on the strong side and play in nickel packages. He will also get the opportunity to blitz the quarterback.
The drafting E.J. Henderson as the middle linebacker of the future could have upset Claiborne. Many thought it would. But he told VU that move was fine with him. He might have cared about not having the opportunity to become a full-time middle linebacker in Detroit, but the Vikings scheme is different, he said.
"I didn't care (about Henderson). They explained to me what they were doing," Claiborne said. "The good thing is I can play all the (linebacker) positions. It adds more depth for the team. And the other thing is that they're happy with what I'm doing."
They really are. Claiborne was the talk of minicamp on defense. Baker said Claiborne was in the best shape of his life, including midseason with the Lions. That doesn't sound like weight issues are a concern anymore.
"He's got a lot of energy and he's got a newfound motivation," Baker said. "Early on I think he was doing things just strictly because he was so talented athletically and physically. I think now he understands football. The questions he's asking, where I'm used to kind of walking through things, he's ready to run. That's a great feeling for me. I'd much rather have to hold a guy back than pull a guy along."
After last year, Baker was pulling young players along and they were forced to start. In fact, that was the case with much of the defense. But the additions through free agency started to snowball, and each new signing motivated others to join the team … at least that was how it worked with Claiborne.
"This team made moves in the offseason that a lot of teams didn't. Teams like Detroit didn't get anybody," Claiborne said. "My theme was I wanted to go where I was going to get upgraded. This team upgrade at corner and the other guys they brought in."
There aren't any superstars on defense -- no bank-breaking free agents. But there is certainly far more talent across the boards, veterans that understand the NFL. So, even though the Lions and Vikings both had losing seasons last year …
"Two different losing years," Claiborne said. "(The Vikings) lost a lot of close games. (Detroit) lost a lot of shootouts. On defense, a shootout is what you want. You want them to throw the ball and try to catch up with us. You look at St. Louis and that year they went to the Super Bowl, that defense just had to be in position to make the plays. That's easy. (The Vikings) have Randy Moss, and every play you have to stop him from getting the ball. You can't do that. You got Michael Bennett, who can run and take the ball any time. You've got a quarterback. You've got offense. That's all I thought we really needed in Detroit. In the end, our defensive backs got killed in the secondary."
Claiborne said six teams pursued him — including Jacksonville, Green Bay and Tampa Bay. "Honestly, when I was looking at it, I think this was the best situation for me to be my own player. Coming into a team where they're not known for defense and being able to bring that to it makes it exciting and fun. That's what I want. I could have gone to Tampa and played, but I would have just been a guy on the defense."
If his minicamp action is any indication, he'll be more than just "a guy on the defense" in Minnesota, and that would make Vikings coaches and fans continue to be thrilled with his surprise acquisition.
Claiborne Making Immediate Impact
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