Betting on Bailey despite mixed reviews

Champ Bailey is looking to bounce back from an injury-riddled 2013 season. Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Sure, Champ Bailey might be over the hill.

But that doesn't mean he can't help the New Orleans Saints get over the hump.

Of course, you have to be skeptical about how much Bailey has left in the tank at age 35. And it's hard to ignore the fact that the Denver Broncos decided to let him go at a time when they're all-in to win while Peyton Manning is still their quarterback.

But it's also hard to argue with the Saints' decision to sign Bailey on Friday for two reasons above all others:

1. Bailey is one of the greatest cornerbacks in NFL history. Not just a guy who made one or two Pro Bowls in his prime. A guy who made 12 of them -- one shy of the record for all defensive players in league history.

2. The Saints have proven time and again this offseason that they're looking forward, not in the past. They've cut ties with six of their own all-time great veterans this offseason. They've pored over every player on the roster with a cold, calculating eye because of their salary-cap constraints and their desire to win another Super Bowl as soon as possible.

And the Saints believe Bailey is worth a two-year contract that is worth up to $7 million, according to a report by ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.

The Saints believe that creative defensive coordinator Rob Ryan can find a role for the 6-foot, 192-pound cornerback, who has always excelled in press coverage -- even as recently as 2012, before a foot injury plagued his disappointing 2013 season.

So count me among the optimists in this deal.

If nothing else, it's no small matter to add a future Hall of Famer to the locker room, film room and practice field. I'm not sure I've ever seen such an overwhelming response from Saints players about a new addition as we saw on Twitter following the news of Bailey's deal.

I spoke with ESPN scouting insiders Matt Williams and KC Joyner about Bailey. Both were turned off by Bailey's struggles in 2013 (when he was limited to five regular-season games because of the injury before returning for the playoffs). And Williamson said, "I hate to say it, but I think he's pretty close to done."

Joyner was a little higher on Bailey, though, since he was impressed with Bailey's 2012 performance.

Joyner has a metric he calls "good coverage" rating for defensive backs. He said Bailey's rating of 29 percent in 2012 ranked 21st among NFL cornerbacks that year. And he said he was a "shut-down" corner when he was in press coverage that year, when he allowed only four short completions and one contact penalty in 15 passes thrown his way.

Last year, however, Joyner said that Bailey allowed nine completions for 123 yards on a total of 11 passes thrown his way in all one-on-one coverage situations.

"If the cornerback of 2013 shows up, that's not gonna be a good sign," Joyner said. "You want to see him revert back to an earlier version. But that depends on how much injuries were impacting him last year."

Bailey, for one, believes he can bounce back.

He told the Saints' website that he tried to "grind my way" through the injury last year but couldn't quite get over it.

"I have a little more to my game, I believe, especially mentally," Bailey said.

Joyner is also optimistic.

"I'll bet he can get back to what he was in 2012," Joyner said. "If they get that Champ Bailey, the 2012 version, you've got a solid cornerback. He's not gonna be the shut-down guy he was in his prime. … But I would think he's one of those players who can bounce back.

"I wouldn't be surprised to see him, even if he takes a quarter-step back from 2012, that's still a very good No. 3 corner or a solid starter. You wouldn't be afraid to put the guy on the field if he's at that level."

Bailey will compete for that No. 2 starter job with Corey White and Patrick Robinson, two younger corners with some starting experience but also inconsistent track records.

Bailey could also play some sort of hybrid safety-cornerback role in nickel and dime packages. That's what a handful of defensive coaches and personnel executives told ESPN.com Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold when he asked around about Bailey's prospects in recent weeks.

But Bailey told USA Today that the Saints never approached him about the idea of switching to safety, and that he will have a chance to compete for the starting corner job.

"I still think corner is their No. 1 need. Yesterday and today," Williamson said. "I guess the Saints are in win-now mode. And I don't think they're super worried about looking to the future right now, and they're taking their shot. [Bailey] didn't play very well, though.

"He had a tough season [in 2013]. And I hate to say it, but I think he's pretty close to done. But maybe he sticks around for one year.

"The thing I thought most was, from where [the Saints] are picking in the draft, there should be some corners to pick from in the top two rounds. Maybe Bailey is just their mentor."

Williamson also pointed to the Broncos' season-ending playoff loss after the 2012 season, when Bailey struggled in coverage against Baltimore Ravens speed receiver Torrey Smith, as another sign of Bailey's gradual decline.

Williamson said the Saints will want to avoid having Bailey in single coverage against speed receivers. But he did agree that Bailey's press coverage and tackling ability can still be strengths. And Williamson is confident in Ryan's ability to put players in the right positions.

"He's such a great athlete and a rare specimen and a great player," Williamson said. "I'm not sure exactly how he fits. But it was obviously a weakness, and if you get a little out of him, great. He's still a good tackling corner. He's a physical corner still. Knowledge of the game. He can still compete for the football in the air for sure."

Clearly, the Saints are making a little bit of a gamble here. But I believe in Bailey's long track record. I believe in what I saw from Ryan's abilities as an aggressive chess-master last year. I believe in the talent that's now stacked around Bailey in the Saints' secondary.

And I believe, if nothing else, the Saints' 2014 season just became even more interesting.