Of all the position battles on the New Orleans Saints' roster, I think the cornerback free-for-all is the hardest to project -- and the most fascinating.
Starter Keenan Lewis is a lock. The only question mark with him is whether he’ll break through for his first Pro Bowl in 2015.
After that: tons of question marks. Guys with high ceilings and low floors.
Champ Bailey, Corey White, Patrick Robinson, Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Rod Sweeting could all wind up being significant contributors this year. And the guys behind them aren’t exactly slouches (Terrence Frederick, Trevin Wade, A.J. Davis and Derrius Brooks).
Here’s how I rank their chances of making the roster, though I’ll admit it’s still very early in the evaluation process:
1. Keenan Lewis. No explanation needed
2. Stanley Jean-Baptiste. I DO NOT expect him to win the other starting job starting in Week 1. But he’s the only other guy on this list that I’m 100 percent sure will make the 53-man roster since the Saints invested a second-round pick in him and his upside is so high.
I actually think Jean-Baptiste will be fourth or fifth in the pecking order to start the season since I think the other guys on this list could all have nice bounce-back years in 2014. He’s got a ton of potential, though, with his big, long frame – as all of the pre-draft comparisons to Seattle’s Richard Sherman suggest.
3. Champ Bailey. No, he’s not in his prime anymore. But you’ve got to give some benefit of doubt to the Saints and assume they have a solid vision for him. The Saints cut ties with a lot of their own aging veterans this offseason, making cold but calculated decisions about whether they could still help. The fact that they went out and added Bailey speaks volumes.
Bailey is still good in press coverage and still good at contesting passes in the air. The Saints probably plan to use him in a specific role in their defense, which often features five or six defensive backs on the field at once.
4. Corey White. White had some highs and lows down the stretch last year after he took over as the Saints’ No. 2 starter when Jabri Greer got hurt. But I didn’t think the lows were ever disastrous. White lost some tough jump balls against the Seahawks and gave up a series of short, underneath throws at Atlanta in two of his more high-profile struggles. I think both can be corrected with more experience and confidence.
I don’t think the Saints are ready to give up on White just yet. But he’ll need to have an excellent camp to remain in a prominent role.
5. Patrick Robinson. The Saints have already proven that they aren’t ready to give up on Robinson yet after they decided to keep his $1.3 million salary on the books despite their salary-cap limitations. Robinson struggled mightily in 2012 then missed all of last season with a knee injury. But New Orleans is hoping he can deliver on the promise he showed in 2011.
That faith makes sense. Robinson’s one bad year came in 2012 when the Saints’ entire defense struggled miserably. He’s a former first-round pick with terrific speed. If he can show signs that he’s playing with confidence and running strong on that knee, he could leap-frog everyone on this list other than Lewis.
However, if Robinson looks ordinary, that salary could be a factor in whether or not he makes the final cut.
6. Rod Sweeting. One of the Saints’ standout undrafted free agents last year, Sweeting looked great in training camp but didn’t play much on defense during the regular season. He seems buried on the depth chart for now, but Year 2 is when players often take their biggest leap. So it’s entirely possible Sweeting could outshine some of the veterans higher on this list. He’s probably the most underrated of an underrated bunch.
7-10. Frederick, Wade, Davis and Brooks. Frederick and Wade made cameo appearances on the roster late last year because of the Saints’ injury issues. The Saints obviously like Davis’ potential since they keep inviting him back to training camp. Brooks has an impressive body of work in the Canadian Football League. All of them are long shots for the active roster, though, barring injuries. (I believe all of them besides Wade are eligible for the practice squad).