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Grading the Saints 2021 Performance at Cornerback

Thought to be a team weakness coming into last offseason, the New Orleans cornerbacks emerged as a strength for one of the NFL's best defenses.
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The New Orleans Saints entered the 2021 offseason with a major need at cornerback. New Orleans had ranked fifth in pass defense and led the league in interceptions during the 2020 season. However, the Saints released veteran CB Janoris Jenkins in a cost cutting move, leaving a big void at the position.

New Orleans bypassed the spot in free agency, not surprising for a team with little salary cap space. To the dismay of many, the Saints also ignored several top-rated corners in the first two rounds of the 2021 NFL Draft. They finally addressed the position in the third round, trading up to draft Stanford CB Paulson Adebo with the Number 76 overall pick.

The Saints had some early season stumbles in pass coverage, but came on strong as the year progressed. A cornerback spot thought to be an Achilles heel coming into the year actually turned out to be a team strength.

2021 Saints Position Grades

Cornerback

Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore (23) breaks up a pass intended for Washington wideout Terry McLaurin (17). Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore (23) breaks up a pass intended for Washington wideout Terry McLaurin (17). Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans finished the year ranked 14th in pass defense, giving up an average of 225 yards per game. Coordinator Dennis Allen employs an aggressive scheme predicated on man-to-man coverage from his cornerbacks.

Fifth-year CB Marshon Lattimore is the focal point of this strategy. A physical defender with the fluid athleticism to blanket even the top wideouts, Lattimore is usually tasked with doing exactly that for Allen's defense.

Lattimore allowed only 57.4% completion percentage when targeted in 2021. He was among the NFL leaders with 19 passes broken up and his 3 interceptions tied for the team lead.

Lattimore earned his fourth Pro Bowl bid in five seasons. He was an absolute nightmare for some of the NFL's best wideouts, completely shutting down stars like Davante Adams, Terry McLaurin, D.K. Metcalf, and Mike Evans.

New Orleans Saints cornerback Paulson Adebo (29) breaks up a pass over Falcons receiver Russell Gage (14). Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans Saints cornerback Paulson Adebo (29) breaks up a pass over Falcons receiver Russell Gage (14). Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Paulson Adebo was thrust into the starting lineup immediately after a preseason injury to veteran CB Ken Crawley. After opting out of the 2020 season at Stanford, Adebo played in his first game since November 9, 2019.

As a rookie, Adebo saw a lot of targets opposite of Lattimore. He showed the savvy of a veteran and the coverage skills of a future Pro Bowler almost from the start.

Adebo recorded his first career interception during a season-opening rout of Green Bay and QB Aaron Rodgers. He’d tie for the team lead with 3 interceptions during the year, breaking up 8 other throws.

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Adebo gave up 62% completion percentage when targeted. He’s a physical defender with great ball skills and held up well despite heavy targets. His play limited the snaps for Bradley Roby, an early season veteran acquisition.

New Orleans Saints cornerback Bradley Roby (21) tackles Seattle receiver Freddie Swain (18). Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY 

New Orleans Saints cornerback Bradley Roby (21) tackles Seattle receiver Freddie Swain (18). Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY 

Roby, 29, was acquired in a September trade with Houston for 3rd and 6th round draft picks. He’d appear in 14 games, but just 42% of the defensive snaps. Roby had an interception and broke up five throws, but allowed 70% completion rate when targeted.

Still, Roby gave the team three top quality corners to go along with Lattimore and Adebo. Safeties Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and P.J. Williams provided top-tier slot coverage, allowing the defense to clamp down on deep receiving units.

New Orleans allowed just four 300-yard passers all season, and none over the last nine weeks. Two of those were bewildering poor outings against mediocre quarterbacks Sam Darnold and Daniel Jones in critical losses to the Panthers and Giants.

Pro Bowl wideouts Davante Adams, Robby Anderson, Terry McLaurin, D.K. Metcalf, Tyler Lockett, A.J. Brown, and Mike Evans were completely shut down by New Orleans coverage. Together they combined to catch just 49% of their targets and averaged less than three catches for 37 yards against the Saints.

New Orleans Saints cornerback Paulson Adebo (29) intercepts a pass from Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12). Bob Self/Florida Times-Union via Imagn Content Services, LLC

New Orleans Saints cornerback Paulson Adebo (29) intercepts a pass from Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12). Bob Self/Florida Times-Union via Imagn Content Services, LLC

New Orleans corners quickly transformed from a perceived weakness into a team strength in 2021. Aside from three poor outings against Darnold, Jones, and Matt Ryan they were a formidable group that altered opposing game planning.

Their exemplary coverage allowed extra time for the team's pass rushers to get to quarterbacks and caused the defense to perform at an elite level down the stretch of the year.

Cornerback Grade = A

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