New Orleans Saints CB Paulson Adebo Could Be NFL's Next Great Ballhawk

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystMay 16, 2021

Stanford cornerback Paulson Adebo (11) in action against Northwestern during the second half of an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019, in Stanford, Calif. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
Tony Avelar/Associated Press

The New Orleans Saints got themselves a ball magnet when they chose Stanford cornerback Paulson Adebo with the 76th pick in the 2021 NFL draft.

Adebo's third-round availability should prove to be a blessing after the Saints entered the draft with the league's worst cornerback room.

Aside from Marshon Lattimore, the roster didn't feature another quality outside corner. The Saints cut veteran Janoris Jenkins for salary-cap purposes. From there, Patrick Robinson, P.J. Williams and safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson are better working over the slot than outside the numbers.

So it came as no surprise when Saints head coach Sean Payton told reporters that Adebo will start his career at left outside corner. He has to because options are limited.

The organization knew this. Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis set their sights on trading up in the first round to select South Carolina's Jaycee Horn or Alabama's Patrick Surtain II. Payton described how the front office tried to attack draft day during an interview on the Rich Eisen Show:

"It was pretty simple. There were a couple players that we'd move up for, but for us, we have a 'must' at corner. So we had two corners graded—both Horn and Surtain—with real high grades. And very quickly, early in the week, it's pretty common for teams to say, 'Hey, we have an interest.' Everyone's basically open for business.

"But ultimately, there wasn't a team wanting to move out of the first 10 picks. And so, I think that lasted all of a half an hour maybe, the morning of reaching out to these teams. And the cost would've been, if we found a trade partner, too high. So at that point, our feeling was, it's going to come to us at 28, so let's make sure we have our cloud of players ready. And that's exactly what happened."

The Saints identified their biggest need and tried to get something done, but it takes two to tango.

Plus, the Tennessee Titans and Cleveland Browns chose Virginia Tech's Caleb Farley and Northwestern's Greg Newsome II with the 22nd and 26th overall picks, respectively. New Orleans immediately changed course and added to another premium position by selecting Houston defensive end Payton Turner with the 28th pick.

Despite the top four cornerbacks coming off the board before the Saints even had a chance to select one, Adebo shouldn't be viewed as a consolation prize. Not so long ago, the two-time first-team All-Pac-12 performer carried a first-round grade.

As a sophomore after not playing during his freshman season, Adebo burst onto the scene and tied for the FBS lead with 24 passes defended. He played corner and wide receiver during his high school career, and it showed in how he attacked the football.

Pac-12 Network @Pac12Network

BANANAS! @StanfordFBall's Paulson Adebo pulls in an absolutely amazing one-handed interception 😳 Watch on our app: https://t.co/SQoIgVELxJ https://t.co/cllwvE6m77

His level of play in 2018 was downright ridiculous.

According to Pro Football Focus, Adebo forced a 25.6 percent incompletion rate into his coverage, 54.6 quarterback rating and 0.89 yards per coverage snap. He finished second among all cornerbacks that season with an 89.4 overall grade.

Adebo performed so well during his first year as a starter that Stanford head coach David Shaw didn't think he would return once he became draft-eligible.

"I know there's no chance we're bringing him back [after the 2019 campaign]," Shaw told ESPN's Todd McShay (h/t Pro Football Talk's Michael David Smith).

Instead, the 2019 season became a bit of a roller-coaster ride.

Adebo didn't play at the same level he did the year prior. Sometimes he'd get caught looking in the backfield. He'd try to jump routes and often bit on double moves. Despite those hiccups, Adebo still intercepted four passes, defended 10 more and ranked among the FBS' most productive when it came to getting his hands on the ball.

On top of somewhat disappointing play, he suffered an undisclosed late-season injury, which caused him to miss three contests.

These issues factored into Adebo coming back for another season despite the previous belief he would be well on his way to the NFL.

A pandemic then got in the way. Despite an opportunity to re-establish himself as a first-round prospect, Adebo chose to opt out of the 2020 campaign.

Jed Jacobsohn/Associated Press

"Obviously, you opt out, that's going to have something to do with how teams are evaluating you," Adebo told reporters after the Saints selected him. "Obviously, they haven't seen me play in over a year. So I'm sure that has something to do with it. For me, the decision to opt out just came with a lot of uncertainty, especially with the Pac-12, one of the last conferences to really get on board with even playing the season."

He had to rely on the previous two years of film, which wasn't necessarily a bad thing. He held the third-highest grade among all cornerbacks with at least 1,000 snaps during that time, per PFF. Overall, he posted a 92 coverage grade and allowed a 63.8 passer rating. Adebo's eight career interceptions surpassed the five touchdowns he allowed.

Last year, the Kansas City Chiefs' L'Jarius Sneed and Washington Football Team's Kamren Curl led all first-year defenders with three interceptions apiece. If Adebo works his way into a starting role quickly enough, his penchant for picks should easily surpass last year's rookie leaders.

Scouts did question some stiffness in Adebo's hips since he's a taller cornerback prospect at 6'1".

"Very similar to Jaylon Johnson last year," one scout told The Athletic's Bob McGinn. "Jaylon was an ideal zone-scheme corner. (Adebo) is like that, but he's got better ball skills and better straight-line speed. He's at the line for what I would say you want for a man-to-man corner. I'd give him the nod over Johnson, who went middle of the second round last year (to the Chicago Bears)."

Johnson started all 13 games he played as a rookie and performed better than first-round corners Jeffrey Okudah, Damon Arnette and Jeff Gladney.

Adebo outplaying other more highly regarded defensive backs in his class wouldn't come as a surprise, either. Not only will plenty of chances exist to prove himself, but he is also an ideal fit for Dennis Allen's defensive scheme.

To the scout's earlier points, Adebo's ran a 4.45-second 40-yard dash at Stanford's pro day and posted an impressive relative athletic score, per Pro Football Network's Kent Lee Platte. In fact, his change-of-direction numbers were better than expected, particularly his 6.70-second three-cone effort.

Bill Feig/Associated Press

Furthermore, the Saints employ man coverage as much as any other team. They put their cornerbacks on an island and expect them to hold up against the league's talented receivers.

As such, Adebo will be tested playing opposite Lattimore. Opposing quarterbacks may be surprised when they inevitably go after the rookie since he posted a 96.1 coverage grade when in single coverage (h/t SB Nation's Peter Bukowski).

Adebo's established skill set, opportunities within the Saints lineup and scheme fit portend what should be a standout rookie campaign that will almost assuredly come with multiple interceptions.

The Saints waited longer than expected to address cornerback, yet the franchise could have still ended up with one of the best defenders in the class and definitely its top ballhawk.


Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.