METAIRIE, Louisiana — For a long time, Marshon Lattimore's beard grew only in patches. It was scraggly and sorry, close-cropped out of necessity.
Something has happened in the past year, though.
The beard now rests on his face thick and bushy, reminiscent of the one Darrelle Revis was known for during his 10-year NFL career.
The comparison is not a mistake and is not one the Saints rookie cornerback discourages. In fact, he will straight up tell you it's intentional, that he wants to be like Revis, that he studies cutups of the former Jet.
And indeed as his beard has grown to resemble Revis', so too has his play.
Since leaving the nest at Ohio State as the 11th overall pick in April, Lattimore has quickly become a fully grown football player—the front-runner for Defensive Rookie of the Year, one of the best-performing cornerbacks in the NFL and a catalyst for one of the league's best and most improved defenses.
"Revis is a lockdown corner," Lattimore says. "I want to be a lockdown corner. So I'm trying to get to that point. I'm striving for it. I like his style of play. I try to mimic his game a little bit."
He also tries to take elements of Deion Sanders and others. But no one has called him the next Deion.
They call him the next Revis.
Lattimore's hamstrings are the reason he is a Saint.
If we never heard about his hamstrings, he probably would have been a 49er or a Titan or a Jet.
A torn left hamstring forced Lattimore to have surgery and miss his freshman season at Ohio State. The next season, as a redshirt freshman, his right hamstring kept pulling, limiting him to seven games. Then he started all 13 games as a sophomore before leaving school early.
Then, at the combine, Lattimore appeared to pull up with a hamstring issue toward the end of an impressive workout. He later denied the hamstring was the problem.
But it was the problem he would have to deal with all through draft season. Question after question, exam after exam. "I got sick of it," he says.
A number of teams downgraded Lattimore on their draft boards. NFL doctors were not in agreement on whether Lattimore's hamstring issues would be chronic.
"It's unusual to have surgery on a hamstring, but he came back from it," Saints general manager Mickey Loomis says. "Our doctors were good with it. But we didn't have any expectation he'd be there at our pick."
With four interceptions and 14 passes defensed last season, to go with a 4.36 40-yard dash, he was one of the most gifted cornerback prospects anyone had ever seen. He was the third- or fourth-highest-rated player on the Saints' draft board, so when he was available at No. 11, there were Champagne bottles to be uncorked.
When Lattimore took the field for the Saints in offseason workouts, he wore KT tape on his hamstrings. He started using it during the 2016 season at Ohio State and thought he should continue doing what worked.
"It was more mental than anything," he says. "It's supposed to keep the muscles together."
In training camp, Lattimore decided he didn't need the tape. Now, he stretches before and after activity and sees a masseuse and an acupuncturist once a week.
"I haven't had any issues with my hamstrings," he says. "I've even forgotten I had hamstring problems. I'm not worried about it."
Healthy hamstrings would have made for a smoother path—but not necessarily a better one. In a sense, Lattimore sees those setbacks as a blessing because they put him where he is supposed to be.
"I'm glad some teams passed on me," he says. "I'm glad to be here right now. This is the perfect place for me. I love it here. We're one family."
Lattimore came to a team with a strong support system, including two players from his hometown neighborhood: Justin Hardee, who was his teammate at Cleveland's Glenville High School, and Ted Ginn, who was 10 years ahead of him at Glenville. Also in the Saints locker room were two of his Buckeye teammates: Michael Thomas and Vonn Bell.
It was Thomas, in fact, who helped sell the Saints on Lattimore. The team asked Thomas to attend a February draft meeting so it could question him about his former teammates, including Lattimore, safety Malik Hooker and cornerback Gareon Conley.
"He talked a lot about the safety and the other corner," Loomis says. "He was high on all of them, but he was particularly high on Marshon. He went on and on about how talented he is."
The Saints also were right for Lattimore because they have a secondary coach who could connect with him. After a 15-year playing career, Aaron Glenn worked with Revis when he was in pro personnel for the Jets. Glenn and Lattimore have talked quite a bit about Revis.
Glenn told him Revis never wanted to allow a single reception—even in practice.
"He was a mean person in practice," Lattimore says. "If somebody caught the ball, he'd be mad. He told me about his attitude, his aggressiveness, his competitiveness."
Glenn sees similarities.
"Marshon is so mild-mannered and laid-back, but he's a totally different player once he gets on the field," Glenn says. "I love his football demeanor.
"Revis had the same mentality: real quiet, didn't say much. Once he got on the field, his eyes were red. He was so zoned in that talking to him during a game was like talking to a brick wall. I knew he was taking it in, but he was so zoned in. And I see those same qualities in Marshon. He has that laser focus when it's game time."
Their bodies are different, Glenn points out. Revis is thicker. Lattimore has an inch on him, and his arms are longer.
"But the mentality is more important than the build," Glenn says. "That's what they share."
In 2007, Revis had immediate success. Those of us who do such things were quick to throw roses at his feet. Lattimore's beginnings are reminiscent of Revis'.
Statistically, Pro Football Focus has touted Lattimore as the best corner in football this season, and through the first seven games, PFF had him as the best rookie at any position since it started keeping track in 2006 (via ESPN).
Zoltán Buday @PFF_Zoltan
Rookie Marshon Lattimore is currently our highest graded cornerback. Here's a map of all throws into his coverage this season: https://t.co/THDE4n7mFI2017-11-14 16:52:58
He earned a spot on many midseason All-Pro teams and was named the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Month for October.
Typically, Lattimore lines up on the right side, but the Saints will rely on him to shadow individuals at times. When he was assigned to mirror Patriots receiver Brandin Cooks in the Saints' second game of the season, he held him to two catches for 37 yards. In October, he followed Packers receiver Davante Adams all over the field and limited him to two catches for 12 yards.
Even in the opener, before Lattimore had faced his first real trial, Saints coaches had unusual confidence in him. Early in the third quarter, Vikings receiver Stefon Diggs already had seven catches for 93 yards and two touchdowns. Then Lattimore was assigned to cover him, and Diggs was shut out the rest of the way.
"We look for some matchups depending on body types, the skills of the receivers and the situations," Saints coach Sean Payton says. "On third downs, he traveled with [Bucs receiver Mike] Evans, but on early downs he didn't."
Lattimore has changed the way the Saints cover. They are playing man-to-man about 70 percent of the time, Glenn says, which is considerably more than last year.
Playing man comes naturally to Lattimore, and he does it with verve and poise. He has less experience playing zone.
"They let me go and play my game, man-to-man," he says. "But I'm learning more about zone, and I'm getting better each week."
Glenn believes Lattimore is also improving at macro concepts like seeing the field, understanding routes and figuring out why offenses are attacking the way they are. And he is improving at micro concepts like lining up in stances that don't tip the coverage technique he is about to use, too.
Some rookies peak in training camp. Lattimore keeps reaching new heights. Payton is reminded of a favorite quote from his mentor.
"Bill [Parcells] used to say this confidence thing is built on demonstrated ability," Payton says. "You see the confidence he's gaining. You see it growing week to week."
And as well as Lattimore has played, he can play much better.
"I know I still have a lot more growing to do," he says. "I've only played a handful of games. I have a lot more to learn. I can get bigger, stronger and faster. I just turned 21. I can get way better than I am now."
The Saints won't let Lattimore cross the line between confidence and cockiness. Even as good as he's already been, they know he can only become Revis with humility and hunger.
Defensive teammates have been razzing Lattimore about fulfilling a Saints rookie tradition and purchasing a Best Buy gift card for each of them. The going rate for each card from a first-round pick is $1,500. Lattimore is overdue to pay up.
"It's all the hype you guys are giving him," safety Kenny Vaccaro says, chuckling. "Now he doesn't want to follow through with his rookie duties."
But Lattimore has given teammates other, more valuable gifts.
The Saints already have one more interception than they had all last season.
"I've been able to make a lot of plays because he's locking his guy down," says Vaccaro, who has three interceptions. "When they can't target [Lattimore] and they have to throw the ball the other way and we can play loaded zones on the other side, it helps the defense a lot, and in ways the public can't see."
It probably is no coincidence that defensive end Cameron Jordan has seven sacks in nine games, one-half sack fewer than he had in 16 games one year ago.
"I've been part of defenses where you have to get to the quarterback in two, two-and-a-half seconds to get home," Jordan says. "Now we seem to have two-and-a-half to three."
The Saints are allowing 72.4 fewer passing yards per game than last season, and an amazing 10.1 fewer points. No one has affected their improvement as much as Lattimore.
|Saints Defensive Improvement|
|2016||2016 Rank||2017||2017 Rank|
|Yards per game||375.4||27||312.3||8|
|Passing yards per game||273.8||32||201.4||7|
|Points per game||28.4||31||18.3||5|
|Pro Football Reference|
"What he's done is impressive by any standard, but especially a rookie standard," Jordan says. "He's playing well beyond his years.
"You tell me the last time somebody as talented as him as a rookie approached the game like this."
Revis, 32, has been out of the NFL since he was released during the offseason. But it wasn't that long ago when he was taking the sting out of wide receivers on a weekly basis, and they were calling his side of the field "Revis Island."
Fans on social media have begun using the phrase "Lattimore Island."
Lattimore knows his game isn't where Revis' was, but he likes the idea of having his own plot of land. "I saw it on Twitter and stuff, and I'm all for it," he says.
He also is all for taking sole responsibility for the player across from him.
"I like to be in your face, one-on-one, me and you," he says. "I never really bought into that you have safety help. Because one little move from another receiver, and the safety has to go to that. So I just play like I have no help."
His position coach says Lattimore embraces challenges, including taking down running backs who have the brawn and intent to maim.
"He wants to tackle," Glenn says. "Early on, that surprised me, his want to. He wants to get mixed up in the physical side of the game. You don't see a lot of corners like that. He wants every piece of football that he can get."
There was a time when Lattimore thought he didn't want any piece of football. When he was a child, his father did some hard time for various offenses. His mother provided love but not everything else Lattimore desired. At least he always had his cousin Dayton Williams, a figurative big brother.
But before Lattimore's sophomore year of high school, Williams, then 17, was shot to death. Lattimore was so shaken. That was the fork in his life's road.
"I almost quit football because of it," says Lattimore, who wears a leather bracelet with Dayton's name. "Instead it made me focus more on football. I stopped doing some of the things I was doing around my neighborhood. So I guess it changed my life for the better."
He became unshakeable.
In a game earlier this month, Jameis Winston came off the Bucs sideline and poked Lattimore in the head. Lattimore would have none of it, shoving Winston and then staring him down. That's when Bucs receiver Mike Evans torpedoed Lattimore from behind.
Lattimore did not throw wild punches or make outrageous threats. He calmly lined up in Evans' face on 3rd-and-20, stayed with him on a deep route and broke up a pass that was going to make a statement one way or another.
"I was really impressed with how he kept his composure after Mike Evans hit him like that," Loomis says. "I don't think there are many players, particularly rookie players, who would keep their composure like he did. He looked at it like he was going to win this by not allowing him to catch anything, as opposed to getting in a fight."
Payton says there is a level-headedness about Lattimore that serves him well. But that level-headedness should not be confused with dispassion.
"I guess they think because I'm a rookie I'm just going to lay down and let them do what they want to do," Lattimore says. "No. That's not how I was raised, not how I was brought up. They can throw that rookie stuff out the window. It's not happening."
Doesn't sound like a rookie talking. Sounds like a fully grown NFL player.
Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @danpompei.