The New Orleans Saints finished 29th in pass defense during the 2018 season. That ranking was somewhat weighed down thanks to a horrible start to the year, when the secondary gave up passing yardage and big plays in big chunks. The New Orleans secondary is one of the youngest in the league. Star cornerback Marshon Lattimore, 22 years old, was in his second year of pro action. Ditto for starting free safety Marcus Williams, also 22. His running mate on the back end, strong safety Vonn Bell was 24 during the year and in his 3rd year of NFL action. The Saints added cornerback Eli Apple and his three years of NFL experience at 23-yrs. old, via trade during the season, which helped solidify the defensive coverage over the last half of the year. The group worked through communication issues, which was a problem leading to coverage breakdowns early on, to play well against a couple of the better receiving units in the league. At one point down the stretch, this secondary was instrumental in allowing five of six opponents to less than 210 yards through the air. As well as the secondary played at times, they still struggled to create turnovers or big plays. The Saints intercepted just 12 passes and recovered 12 fumbles in 2018, and although ten pickoffs and six recoveries came from the secondary, the team's coaches would love to see that number increase. Today's draft profile takes a look at a player who could add a playmaking element to this young defense.
Juan Thornhill, S (Virginia)
Thornhill played at Altavista H.S in Virginia, where he was an all-state defensive star and quarterback that led his squad to two state titles. He stayed close to home for college, choosing the University of Virginia, where he saw action in nine games as a true freshman. Thornhill became a starter at cornerback during his sophomore season for the Cavaliers, had seven pass breakups and led the team with 3 interceptions in 11 starts. He started all twelve of the Cav's games as a junior in 2017, intercepting 4 passes, breaking up 12, and amassing 4.5 tackles for loss. Thornhill moved predominantly to safety as a senior last season and earned All-ACC honors, as he intercepted 6 passes (tied for third in FBS), broke up seven passes, and led Virginia with 98 tackles. Over three years as a starter and one of the leaders of the Cavaliers defense, he intercepted 13 passes (22nd in ACC history), totaled 206 tackles (12 for loss), had 1.5 sacks, and was credited with 26 passes defensed.
Thornhill showcased his unique athleticism at last month's NFL Scouting Combine. He ran 4.42 in the 40, fifth among all participating safeties. His 44 inch vertical jump was the best among all participants at the Combine, as was his 141 inch broad jump.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (Bears)
Thornhill is an explosive athlete with the coverage versatility and prototypical size that NFL teams covet. His leaping ability and combative nature allows him to hold his own in 50/50 balls against receivers. He challenges receivers in man coverage, particularly in the slot, and can match up with most athletically. Thornhill possesses good recognition of opposing pass routes, as well as the natural reaction to the ball in the air and the speed to close quickly and make a play. He is equally effective in zone with eyes on the play in front of him or in man coverage with back initially to the play without getting lost in transition to the ball. He even showed some skill as an off the ball linebacker in some alignments at Virginia, exploding between gaps in blocking to pursue plays into the backfield.
He isn't a big hitter as a tackler, sometimes struggling inside the tackle box, and needs to show more effort in disengaging from a blocker. His aggressiveness in coverage can also leave him vulnerable to double moves or play action fakes. Thornhill is rocketing up draft boards recently though, even being projected by some as a late first or early second round pick, but almost certainly cementing himself as no later than a Day Two selection. His ability to play corner or safety will be a major asset to the franchise that drafts him. His longterm success seems to be at safety, where his versatility, athleticism, and ball skills could make him an immediate impact player.