Most analysts and fans alike have the New Orleans Saints selecting a linebacker at the 24th spot in the NFL Draft. With the loss of A.J. Klein and questions about the health of Kiko Alonso and Alex Anzalone, it makes sense that the team would look to address the position. However, there is a case that a different position should be the focus at 24: cornerback.
It may seem that the team is set in the secondary with the signing of Malcolm Jenkins, the restructuring of Janoris Jenkins’s contract and Marshon Lattimore taking another step forward, but what if one of the latter were to miss time? Would the team slide Patrick Robinson to the outside? Or possibly give the inexperienced Justin Hardee or newcomer Deatrick Nichols snaps on the outside? Beyond that, Lattimore is entering his second to last year of his rookie contract with the team picking up his fifth-year option for 2021, and Janoris Jenkins will be turning 32 durning the season.
For these reasons it makes sense that a cornerback could be a target with the Saints first pick.
First, let’s look at positional value. The days of the linebacker being the heart and soul of the defense are in the past. Not that the position isn’t important, but the high usage of 11-personnel forces teams to spend more time in the nickel defense. Last season the Saints played with five or more defensive backs on the field for more than 30% of all defensive snaps, and with Tom Brady in Tampa Bay and Joe Brady running the offense in Carolina it seems more likely to increase rather than decrease.
New England rarely makes aggressive forays into free agency, but the two notable exceptions to that rule have come in its pursuit of top-tier cornerbacks. The Pats made a splash in 2017 by handing Stephon Gilmore a five-year, $65 million contract (with $40 million guaranteed) that made him one of the highest-paid cornerbacks in football. That deal came three years after New England landed Darrelle Revis on a one-year, $12 million contract
This shows that the team that won the most Super-Bowls over the last decade puts a higher emphasis on that position over others.
Meanwhile many analytical sources (such as PFF) have argued and shown through research that pass coverage is the most important part of the defense. One measurment PFF developed, known as W.A.R. (wins above replacemnt), attempts to place a value on a single position by comparing starter level players to “replacement players” such as backups that are considered “average”. According to the model, cornerbacks have a higher average W.A.R. compared to linebackers, meaning in more basic terms that an injury to a starting cornerback is more devastating to a defnese than an injury to a starting linebacker.
This puts a premium on the importance of cornerback depth compared to depth at linebacker.
Next we can look at the difference between the two position in regards to their transistion to the NFL game. New Orleans may be a bit spoiled having Lattimore come out the gate looking like a seasoned vet, but typically cornerbacks take a bit longer to make the jump to the pros than linebackers.
One aspect that made the 2017 defensive rookie of the year able to start so early and be drafted so high was that he had the technique needed to compete with NFL level recievers. Typically the further down the draft board you go, the less technically sound a player is. This isn’t always the case as plenty of players are taken high due to athletic traits that may lack some skills, but on average the later the player is picked, the less ready they are to start. Therefore, using a higher pick on a cornerback could negate the drop off between starter and backup.
The same could be said for the linebacker position, although the drop off isn’t nearly as wide as cornerback. Looking at some of the highest graded rookie linebackers over the last two seasons-Bobby Okereke and Darius Leonard- we can see that both were taken after the first round. Excluding last year where only one cornerback was taken in the first round (Deandre Baker), in 2017 and 2018 the highest graded rookies at the position were first round picks (Lattimore and Denzel Ward).
Taking the information from above, it would be feasible to belive the team can get solid production from a linebacker taken in the later rounds.
Both positions are rather thin in depth and have contracts that are expering in the next year or two which make taking either a solid choice. A young playmaking linebacker next to Demario Davis could have an immediate impact and take the defense to the next level, however losing one of the starting cornerbacks could have a bigger negative impact than relying on Craig Robertson or Kaden Elliss.
Cornerback targets in the first round
- Trade-up canidates: CJ Henderson, Kristian Fulton
Rated by many analysts as the top two cornerbacks other than Jeffery Okudah, both players should be able to start immediateley, leading them to possibly being drafted higher than 24.
- Players that should be available at 24: Jeff Gladney, Jaylon Johnson, A.J. Terrell, Trevon Diggs, Bryce Hall, Noah Igbinoghene
While not all of these players are seen as first round talents, many have the skillset to provide quality depth while not requiring the team to trade up.
At the end of the day as long as New Orleans does not reach on a player, there isn’t necessarily a “wrong” pick between the two positions. Both would address team needs and make the defense better overall. But if I were to be making the decision and one of the top cornerbacks were available when it came time, cornerback would be the choice.