Saints News Network's intern Andrew Gullotta explores the Saints' need for a cornerback in the 2021 NFL Draft.
The 2021 NFL Draft will kick off from Cleveland on Thursday. The New Orleans Saints will fill the holes on their roster left from their exodus of veterans and free agents earlier this offseason. Among the most significant areas of need is in the team's secondary, specifically at cornerback. Expect New Orleans to draft or sign a free agent to replace cornerback Janoris Jenkins to be posted opposite of Marshon Lattimore.
The Saints secondary had a strong 2020 campaign but need help in 2021. The draft's top two cornerbacks, Jaycee Horn (South Carolina) and Patrick Surtain II (Alabama) will likely be off the board before New Orleans makes their selection. Look for the Saints to focus on selecting either Caleb Farley (VA Tech), Greg Newsome II (Northwestern), or Asante Samuel, Jr. within the top two rounds.
After Janoris Jenkins gave the Saints over a year of consistent and quality production from the cornerback position opposite three-time Pro Bowler Marshon Lattimore, Jenkins intercepted three passes in 2020 while posting an 81.5 passer rating against during the same season. Even though the 32-year-old was solid for the Saints, the team decided to cut Jenkins to save $7 million in cap space, as the cornerback signed a two-year, $15 million contract with the Tennessee Titans.
Now, New Orleans is left with a gaping hole at cornerback that the team will most definitely fill with one of their eight draft picks this year. So, let’s take a deep dive into three prospects the Saints may target within their first two selections at No. 28 and 60.
The Virginia-Tech product comes into the draft after opting out of the 2020 college football season. However, Farley was outstanding in the two prior years, covering the outside cornerback position for the Hookies, starting 23 games, intercepting six passes, and earning First-Team All-ACC honors in 2019.
Farley’s play also checks out analytically as he earned a 90.5 Pro Football Focus grade and posted an impressive 26.8 passer rating against in 2019. Wide receivers only caught 36% of the passes that were defended by Farley as well. Specifically, the cornerback performed well at all depths of the field, posting a PFF grade of 81.8 on short passes with a 32.2 passer rating against, 83.9 on medium depth passes with a 4.9 passer rating against, and 74.4 on deep passes with a 47.8 passer rating against. Farley also personally forced ten incompletions in his outstanding 2019 season, which catapulted him to his first-round draft status.
When analyzing Farley’s college stats and game film, he is unquestionably one of the top cornerbacks of the draft with shut-down potential. However, the Virginia Tech product is tumbling down draft boards due to multiple back injuries that have plagued Farley throughout the past two seasons. This characteristic may cause Farley to fall into the 20s or beyond, making him a possible pick for the Saints.
Greg Newsome II
The Northwestern cornerback comes into draft day after enjoying an illustrious 2020 campaign in the shortened Big Ten season. Newsome defended 25 passes with one interception in his three-year collegiate career. He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in 2020, as he grew into the Wildcats’ shut-down corner.
Newsome’s steady Northwestern career is illustrated in his advanced statistics. He posted an 83.8 PFF coverage grade with an 82.3 man-coverage grade and an 85.0 zone-coverage grade. Newsome’s ability to interchangeably play both man and zone coverage makes him an attractive prospect for the Saints, who play various defensive alignments. Newsome II posted a 35.3% completion percentage against and 31.7 passer rating against in the 2020 season. Specifically, the cornerback surrendered zero completions on deep passes of 20+ yards with three forced incompletions on seven targets. Newsome II’s elite ability to defend the deep ball is enticing for New Orleans, as the team’s secondary has been burned by deep completions when the group isn’t quite performing at the top of their game.
Even though Newsome II’s potential may not be as large as Farley’s, his high floor and stability make him an appealing option for the Saints if he is still available. He has impeccable footwork, allows for interchangeable schemes, and defends the deep ball at a high level, which are all qualities needed for an NFL starting cornerback.
Asante Samuel, Jr.
The Florida State cornerback will enter draft day after three years of consistent play. He has been gaining prominence due to his satisfactory play against elite ACC opponents. His father, Asante Samuel, Sr., star-studded NFL career has helped the younger Samuel draft stock as one of the top cornerbacks to be selected in the draft.
Samuel's career at Florida State showed how the defensive back could be in an NFL secondary. He played over 1,000 snaps in the slot throughout his three years with the Seminoles. However, in 2020, he primarily played on the outside corner position. While playing both positions, his play never wavered, as he never posted a PFF grade below 73.3.
He also consistently improved, as his best grade was in 2020, where he earned an 81.8 overall and 82.8 coverage rating. This versatility, paired with his ability to play in both man and zone schemes, makes him an intriguing option for New Orleans.
The one downside to Samuel is his size and may push him into the second round. Even though his ball and coverage skills are solid, he is 5-10 and 180 pounds. This size is concerning because opposing wideouts used it against him in college.
In the medium depth pass range of 10-19 yards, Samuel surrendered five completions, one touchdown, and a nearly perfect 151.3 passer rating. This depth is where large-sized receivers can gain favorable spots and success against smaller corners like Samuel.
If the Saints were to draft Samuel, they will be aware of this weakness and try to combat it either through the progression of his technique or scheme alterations in the defense. Still, Samuel will be an upgrade over what the Saints current cornerbacks on the roster. Selecting him will be a solid move by New Orleans.
*Pro Football Focus Stats Were Found in PFF NFL 2021 Draft Guide*
The article was written by Andrew Gullotta, SNN Intern.