The New Orleans Saints made an absolutely shrewd move prior to the 2013 season by signing cornerback Keenan Lewis in free agency. At that point, adding Lewis was supposed to be a step in the right direction, but no one could have foreseen Lewis turning into one of the better cover corners in the league or how that move would become a catalyst for such a pleasant transformation on defense in New Orleans.
As good a move as adding Lewis was a little over a year ago, the Saints need to strike gold like that again in the secondary with another offseason acquisition. With a Lewis-like addition probably no longer available in free agency at cornerback, the Saints will look to the upcoming NFL draft for help.
There aren’t too many situations in which the Saints would move up in the draft from their spot in the first round at No. 27. Adding the kind of cornerback New Orleans will need to make a difference might be one of them.
The New Orleans defense was putrid in 2012, a historically awful unit that allowed 7,042 yards of offense and 28.4 points per game. Adding Lewis wasn’t the only reason the Saints defense morphed into a top-five unit, but Lewis’ blanket coverage gave the pass rush an extra little bit of time to really get after opposing quarterbacks.
Lewis’ play gave new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan a myriad of opportunities to attack and befuddle opposing offenses. His mere presence in the defensive backfield (as stated before, Lewis didn’t act alone, but he was a catalyst for this worst-to-near-first transformation) helped New Orleans finish second in the NFL after allowing only 3,105 yards through the air last season, instead of 31st after giving up 4,681 passing yards in 2012.
The Saints found a free-agency gem in Lewis, who in turn enjoyed an emergence. In 2012 with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Lewis was the 58th-ranked cornerback in the league according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Lewis gave up a reception for every nine times he was the primary man in coverage.
Fast-forward to 2013 and Lewis was Pro Football Focus’ sixth-ranked cornerback after he allowed a reception for every 13.8 times he was the primary man in coverage.
The metamorphosis Lewis enjoyed was incredible, almost as much as the change for the better New Orleans’ defense enjoyed. But if the Saints are going to work toward a Super Bowl in 2014, they need to add a quality cornerback to play opposite Lewis.
The best free-agent cornerbacks have already been gobbled up. Gone are names like Darrelle Revis and Aqib Talib. What’s left are guys with little left in the tank like Champ Bailey and Asante Samuel, who once would have been fantastic additions to this New Orleans secondary but now just aren’t enough.
New Orleans needs to find a game-changing cornerback in the draft in May. To do so, the Saints may need to move up from their spot at No. 27 to maximize their opportunity to win immediately.
If the Saints stay at No. 27, it might be prudent to take the best player available at wide receiver, cornerback or pass-rusher (linebacker or defensive end). But if they want one of the best corners in the draft, a move up is the only way.
Virginia Tech’s Kyle Fuller, TCU’s Jason Verrett and Ohio State corner Bradley Roby have all been linked to New Orleans in mock drafts at the No. 27 pick. What would it take for New Orleans to move up and get either Justin Gilbert from Oklahoma State or Darqueze Dennard from Michigan State?
After examining eight mock drafts (four from CBS and four from NFL.com), the most frequent landing spot for Gilbert is No. 10 to the Detroit Lions. Dennard landed most often at No. 15 to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
|Justin Gilbert and Darqueze Dennard in Mock Drafts|
|Mock Draft||Justin Gilbert||Darqueze Dennard|
|Rob Rang (CBS)||10 (Lions)||15 (Steelers)|
|Dane Brugler (CBS)||10 (Lions)||20 (Cardinals)|
|Pete Prisco (CBS)||25 (Chargers)||8 (Vikings)|
|Pat Kirwan (CBS)||11 (Titans)||10 (Lions)|
|Daniel Jeremiah (NFL.com)||10 (Lions)||22 (Eagles)|
|Bucky Brooks (NFL.com)||11 (Titans)||15 (Steelers)|
|Charles Davis (NFL.com)||10 (Lions)||15 (Steelers)|
|Mike Huguenin (NFL.com)||10 (Lions)||15 (Steelers)|
|CBS Sports & NFL.com|
To move up to No. 10 from the Saints’ current spot, it would cost 620 points according to an NFL draft value chart used by many general managers and coaches on draft day. To make a jump that big, New Orleans would likely either have to give up its 2015 first-round pick or a combination of three to four picks.
Using the draft value chart to make the math work, a sample deal with the Lions might have to include a 2014 second-round pick and a third-round pick, plus a 2015 third- and fourth-round pick, just to move up to No. 10 for Gilbert.
Jumping up to No. 15 would cost 320 points, a move that could get done with just an additional second-round pick given up by the Saints or possibly two third-rounders (one this year and one next) and a fourth-round pick.
It would cost the Saints a lot more to move up for Gilbert. But in doing so, Gilbert would not only give New Orleans a shutdown corner to play opposite Lewis, but also a kick-return specialist as well. Gilbert could be ready to play in the NFL immediately, and that’s a huge benefit for the Saints, who are definitely in win-now mode.
Dennard could be had for less but in doing so, the Saints wouldn’t be getting a cornerback as NFL-ready as Gilbert. Dennard is physical and has great instincts, but he doesn’t project as anything higher than a No. 2 cornerback in the NFL.
The Saints only need the corner they draft to be a No. 2 option, but if the team is going to move up in the draft and give up so much to do so, the guy they pick had better have No. 1 corner talent written down in the box titled “upside.”
Gilbert seems to be the better option for the Saints. And if general manager Mickey Loomis feels his defense is one elite cornerback prospect away from everything falling into place, he might find a way to get a deal done.
It’s not absolutely necessary for the Saints to pull this kind of trade off (which is why there’s likely more of a chance for this not to happen), and New Orleans can still win by staying at No. 27. But remember, this team is in win-now mode; quarterback Drew Brees is aging, tight end Jimmy Graham’s long-term contract situation is in flux and Loomis just spent a gob of money on free-agent safety Jairus Byrd.
A trade to move up for a cornerback might hurt from the standpoint of giving up a number of draft picks. But if it brought a Super Bowl to New Orleans, Bourbon Street would be ecstatic.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.
Knox Bardeen is the NFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report and the author of “100 Things Falcons Fans Should Know & Do Before they Die.” Be sure to follow Knox on Twitter.