The short version is that it’s hard to camouflage a bad defensive back
The New Orleans Saints have a few glaring holes heading into the 2021 NFL Draft. Some of those holes were there heading into the offseason, whereas others were opened up due to a plethora of cuts to get under the salary cap. Two of the main defensive cuts that opened up massive positions of need for the Saints were Janoris Jenkins — freeing up a spot at cornerback No. 2 — and Kwon Alexander — tearing a hole in the linebacker corps.
The worst part is that these are positions that were generally strong for the Saints last season. While Alexander and particularly Jenkins weren’t quite game-changers, they were good enough to not get picked on. And that poses a problem in 2021: You don’t know who’s bad until you see it.
The Saints have tried in the past to lock up defensive back help in free agency. Brandon Browner was an unmitigated disaster, Champ Bailey didn’t make the roster and Keenan Lewis was good to very good for two years before dropping off the map. In terms of home-grown talent, they’ve brought in Ken Crawley as an undrafted free agent, they drafted Patrick Robinson who was at his best with the Eagles, and they drafted PJ Williams who is flirting with being a serviceable slot cornerback but struggles outside.
With all of this in mind, the Saints would be better served going against the grain and drafting a cornerback in the first round of the draft, instead of a linebacker. While linebacker is a glaring need, the Saints have had more success masking poor linebacker play than they have poor play opposite Marshon Lattimore.
Part of this is due to the nature of these positions. Cornerbacks will find themselves on islands before linebackers, and you can only scheme away from one player for so long.
In terms of drafting and big boards, this draft class of linebackers is top-heavy with some mid-round talent sprinkled in. The two apparently can’t-miss players are Penn State’s Micah Parsons and Notre Dame’s Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. Jamin Davis is shooting up boards, while players like Jabril Cox and Nick Bolton offer solid back-up options in the middle rounds. It may be worth waiting to land one of these mid-tier talents rather than taking whoever is left at 28.
Cornerback, meanwhile, has two players ostensibly in the top 25 who could break things wide open: Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley and Alabama’s Patrick Surtain. After them, a few players stand out, some bigger projects than others. Jaycee Horn and Tyson Campbell are two players who fared well in the SEC, but both have their own sets of concerns. Aaron Robinson is a risky pick out of UCF who did extremely well, albeit against slightly less competition. Asante Samuel Jr. likely isn’t a first-round talent, but he’s a solid backup plan if things get insane in the first round.
The reality is that the Saints aren’t landing another Lattimore at No. 28. Nor are they going to get Devin Bush or Patrick Queen. New Orleans has to evaluate its needs and figure out: Which position needs this more? My submission is that it’s cornerback, because we’ve seen what happens when No. 2 is lesser-than. Demario Davis can mask a Manti Teo or even a Craig Robertson. But Lattimore and Marcus Williams can’t do much opposite Crawley or Williams, especially in the NFC South where Calvin Ridley and Chris Godwin Jr. are looming.
The unfortunate reality is that this is a reckoning year for the Saints. With so many players to extend and so far under the cap, it’s going to be hard to find serviceable position players in free agency. The best the Saints can do is go for the best player available in the draft. Those best players are just shaking out to likely be cornerbacks, and the Saints need to make sure that they don’t have anyone in the secondary who can get picked on or it could end up being a long season.
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