The New Orleans Saints kicked off OTAs this week, and speculation continues as to who will emerge in the battle for the team’s No. 2 starting cornerback spot.
With the surplus of complex passing attacks in today’s NFL, solid play at the corner position is essential for defensive success.
For the Saints, 2013 free-agent acquisition Keenan Lewis is undeniably the team’s top cover man. He picked off four passes last season to go with nine passes defended, and he played a key role in New Orleans’ defensive resurgence under first-year coordinator Rob Ryan.
The other side of Ryan’s defense is where things get a bit dicey.
Gone is Jabari Greer, who was last season’s No. 2 corner. He suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 11 of the 2013 season, and he was released this offseason.
The Saints weren’t idle in their efforts to replace him, however, as they addressed the cornerback position through both free agency and the draft.
In early April, New Orleans brought in 12-time Pro Bowler Champ Bailey. There’s no denying his lofty status as one of the game’s all-time great cover men, but Bailey is on the back end of his career, and if he occupies the Saints’ No. 2 corner spot in 2014, he’ll have to earn it first.
The 35-year-old has 52 career interceptions and 142 passes defended in 15 NFL seasons. He was hampered by a foot injury last season in Denver, however, and he only played in five games for the Broncos.
He may have lost a step, but there’s no substitute for his experience, which is quite important for an NFL cover corner. He also brings strong leadership to New Orleans, and he could serve as an excellent mentor to the younger corners in camp.
Bailey’s chief competition at the moment could be Corey White. The 2012 fifth-round draft pick registered six starts in Greer’s stead last year, but his play wasn’t nearly consistent enough to earn him the job heading into this season.
The athletic third-year corner has good size for the position at 6’1” and 205 pounds, and he possesses the right mental makeup to play corner in Ryan’s aggressive defense. He plays the position with confidence, and he appears to have a short memory, which is a necessity in today’s pass-heavy brand of football.
It must be acknowledged, however, that White was beaten in coverage too often last season, and his game still needs fine tuning. He’s certainly in the mix to earn the job, but he’ll have to make some strides in order to win the competition.
Another candidate is recent draftee Stanley Jean-Baptiste. The former Nebraska standout was the Saints’ second-round selection in the 2014 draft, and he brings a 6’3,” 218-pound frame to the New Orleans cornerback unit.
As far as potential goes, there’s a lot to like about the physically imposing rookie. His length is ideal for press-man coverage, especially in the blitz-happy Ryan’s exotic 3-4 scheme. In addition, he demonstrates impressive ball skills (seven interceptions in 19 collegiate starts).
Jean-Baptiste isn’t likely to be the starter when the Saints open their season in Atlanta this coming September, but there’s a realistic chance he’ll take over the No. 2 corner spot at some point next season.
Then there’s Patrick Robinson. The fifth-year veteran and former first-round draft pick has had a disappointing career in New Orleans, but the book isn’t completely written on him just yet.
Like nearly every other defensive player on the Saints roster, he turned in a poor overall performance in 2012. He showed significant improvement in Ryan’s system early on last season, however, before going down with a season-ending knee injury in Week 2 against Tampa Bay.
Robinson may be a long-shot to earn the No. 2 job this season, but his experience will give him a chance to see the field often in nickel and dime packages.
If competition breeds success, then the New Orleans Saints are likely to have a salty collection of cornerbacks this coming season.
The corners mentioned above are in a heated position battle, and they all have the potential to contribute to the Saints’ secondary. Only one will earn the coveted role of No. 2 outside corner, however, as New Orleans sets its sights on a banner defensive year in 2014.
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