The play of the cornerback unit on the New Orleans Saints in 2017 was one of the most important factors in the team's return to the playoffs for the first time in three years. One primary reason for this was Marshon Lattimore, the Saints first round draft choice from a year ago. Lattimore quickly established himself as one of the NFL's top defensive backs, intercepting 5 passes, and locking down some of the best receivers in the league while earning a Pro Bowl berth and winning the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. Second year corner Ken Crawley showed great improvement as well, stepping in opposite Lattimore and giving the team one of the league's better cornerback duos. Crawley was came to the Saints as an undrafted rookie in 2016, receiving a baptism by fire in his first year by being thrust into a prominent role due to a rash of injuries. Today's undrafted rookie profile takes a look at another player hoping to make the rest of the NFL regret not announcing his name at the draft podium.
Linden Stephens, CB (Cincinnati)
Stephens went to Euclid (OH) high school, then attended Fort Union Military Academy before joining the University of Cincinnati. He was a special teams standout right away, while contributing in the secondary and moving his way up the depth chart with the Bearcats, and started all 12 games in his senior season. He finished his Cincinnati career with 6 interceptions, 20 pass breakups, and 140 tackles in 21 total starts. Over his final two seasons, he was perhaps the best defensive player on a struggling Bearcats team. He showcased his athleticism during his pro day at Cincinnati, especially when running a 4.38 40-yd. dash, which would have been a top five mark among all defensive backs at the Scouting Combine. Stephens, whose father Mac Stephens was a linebacker for the Minnesota Vikings and New York Jets, met with New Orleans officials prior to his Pro Day, then again during a pre-draft visit.
Stephens brings fluid athleticism, good agility, and excellent straight line speed to the cornerback position. He does have a smaller frame (6'0, 193-lbs.), which may limit him to slot coverage most often. He has good fundamentals as a tackler, but can get overwhelmed due to his size. He struggles to track down the deep ball at times, and his overall ball skills need work, often because he's slow to get his head turned back while in man coverage. Stephens has the speed to run with almost anyone he lines up against. He opens his hips well, has quick reaction to cuts, and excels in mirroring his receiver when engaged. He aggressively moves on plays in front of him, showing excellent timing to disrupt the catch. Stephens has been an outstanding special teams player throughout his college career. His straight line speed, aggressive mentality, and fundamental tackling skills make him an ideal gunner on kick and punt coverage units.
The New Orleans Saints have had success with undrafted cornerbacks in the past. Crawley has developed into an underrated cover corner, while De'Vante Harris also earned a roster spot with Crawley in 2016. Arthur Maulet fought his way onto the Saints roster after going undrafted from Memphis a year ago, thanks to his special teams abilities and coverage potential. There are a handful of pro bowl caliber cornerback throughout the league that went undrafted to begin their careers. One of the Saints better cornerbacks in team history, Jabari Greer, was originally an undrafted rookie with the Buffalo Bills before becoming a standout cover man for New Orleans. The outstanding play of Lattimore and Crawley helped set the tone for an improved and aggressive New Orleans Saints defense a year ago. The team signed Patrick Robinson to add veteran ability and depth, and Maulet is expected to be a factor, as is rookie 5th round pick Natrell Jamerson. Linden Stephens looks to have NFL-caliber coverage skills, along with the aggressive playing style that could fit in perfectly with coordinator Dennis Allen's defensive scheme.