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Cornerback is Saints' top need, but can they find a match in Round 1?

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Sean Payton on Saints' QB situation (1:07)

Sean Payton, speaking after the Zurich Classic of New Orleans celebrity shootout, said the Saints don't consider the QB position a "must" in this year's draft. (1:07)

METAIRIE, La. -- Identifying the New Orleans Saints' top need heading into this year’s NFL draft is easy. Sean Payton singled out cornerback last week as a position the Saints must "address between now and the start of the season."

But finding the right fit with the 28th pick on Thursday night could prove a little more difficult.

Top prospects Patrick Surtain II, Jaycee Horn, Caleb Farley and Greg Newsome II could potentially be long gone by then. All four were selected among the top 16 picks of Tuesday’s ESPN NFL Nation mock draft.

Of course the Saints could make an aggressive trade up the board -- which they have done a whopping 20 times in the past 14 drafts. But their eight picks this year are more precious than usual after Drew Brees’ retirement left them with a big question mark at QB and a salary-cap purge left them with holes at cornerback, linebacker, wide receiver, defensive line and tight end.

I went with Kentucky linebacker Jamin Davis at pick 28 in the NFL Nation mock instead of forcing a fit at cornerback.

Georgia’s Tyson Campbell has been generating buzz recently as a possible Round 1 pick, but analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said on ESPN’s First Draft podcast that the Saints might be “stretching it a bit” if they take him as early as 28.

Kiper does expect a run on cornerbacks to start at some point in Round 2, though, and called it the “second-deepest position in this draft” outside of wide receiver. So the Saints could find a fit with their second-round pick or two third-rounders.

And if the grades don’t quite line up early in the draft, there are still some experienced free agents that New Orleans could potentially sign at a discount -- headlined by Richard Sherman, Casey Hayward Jr. and Bashaud Breeland.

Here’s a breakdown of the best options:

If they trade up in Round 1

The good news for the Saints is that it’s actually possible that no defensive players will be selected in the first eight or 10 picks. So there could be a domino effect where one or two corners fall into realistic trade range.

Farley is the most likely to fall outside of the top 20 because of concerns over a lingering back injury. He had one surgery after his terrific 2019 season, then he had another surgery last month after opting out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns. Farley’s agent, Drew Rosenhaus, and surgeon, Dr. Robert Watkins, have both insisted that his medical outlook is good, according to NFL.com. But it remains to be seen how teams judge that for themselves.

“If your staff tells me that you’re gonna have him for 10 years healthy, then I’m taking him as the No. 1 corner and maybe, arguably, the No. 1 defensive player in this class. That’s how much I love his tape,” ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said of the 6-foot-2, 207-pound Farley, who led the FBS in 2019 by allowing a completion percentage of just 24.4% as the primary defender, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

Northwestern’s Newsome (6-1, 190) could also potentially slip because of injury issues he dealt with in college. But ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky said he is a big fan of Newsome because of his length. And Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy said Newsome has the “best feet” of any top prospect.

“He has the cleanest feet. His transitions are incredible,” Nagy said. “So off-man stuff, Newsome’s gonna be the best.”

Alabama’s Surtain (6-2, 202) and South Carolina’s Horn (6-1, 205) are the least likely to fall outside of the top 16. But ESPN analyst and former NFL safety Matt Bowen said Horn is the guy he would be most eager to trade up for if he were New Orleans -- and not just because he is the son of former Saints receiver Joe Horn.

“Especially in a defense like [Saints defensive coordinator] Dennis Allen’s that is very aggressive,” Bowen said. “He’s ultra-competitive on film. I love watching him, the way he battles, the way he competes. High-level coverage traits -- and from a press position.

“He has some versatility within multiple NFL defenses. Especially New Orleans, they’re gonna play single-high and man, they’re gonna play a lot of two-high and man, and they’re gonna bring a lot of pressure. So he fits exactly what they want in terms of the high-level press-man ability.”

If they miss the top four

Bowen said he is not sure if Georgia’s Tyson Campbell will be a Day 1 or 2 pick. But he identified the 6-2, 185-pounder as the most intriguing prospect outside of the top four.

“He’s a former five-star recruit who played on the same high school team as Patrick Surtain,” Bowen said. “He’s got really good transition speed. I think he’s got high-level traits in terms of being able to play press coverage. He can make plays in zone coverage, too. At times, the production on the tape doesn’t match the high-level traits. But you’d be betting on those traits with someone who could fit in your system.”

Campbell was much more effective in 2019 (allowing zero TDs, a 31.3 completion percentage and a 17.2 QBR) than he was in 2020 (five TDs, 59% completion rate, 93.8 QBR) according to ESPN Stats & Info. But he ranked ninth among FBS defensive backs with 137 press-coverage snaps last year.

Bowen also mentioned Kentucky’s Kelvin Joseph (a former LSU transfer) as an intriguing Day 2 prospect with high traits.

Kiper and McShay listed Florida State’s Asante Samuel Jr., Georgia’s Eric Stokes and Syracuse’s Ifeatu Melifonwu among other top Day 2 prospects.

If they sign a veteran

There are still some decent cornerbacks to choose from in free agency, thanks to the salary-cap plummet that affected teams and players throughout the NFL. Unfortunately, it might be difficult for the Saints to spend even $5 million on a player, since they have already stretched their cap so far.

Sherman, Hayward, Josh Norman and Jason McCourty are among the bigger names who have tailed off a bit in recent years. Breeland, Steven Nelson, Brian Poole and Gareon Conley are among younger options with starting experience.

Sherman is the most compelling option -- especially because the Saints just hired his former position coach and defensive coordinator with the Seattle Seahawks, Kris Richard, to coach their secondary. Sherman comes with question marks since he just turned 33 and appeared in only five games with the San Francisco 49ers last season because of a calf injury. But he played at an elite level in 2019, returning from a ruptured Achilles to earn second-team All-Pro honors.

Bowen said Sherman would be a good fit both in New Orleans’ scheme and the locker room as a mentor to their talented young DBs. But he singled out the 29-year-old Breeland as the option he would target first.

“He’s coming from a system in Kansas City which is pretty similar. And I really liked him on tape this year,” Bowen said. “I thought he was competitive. I thought he could make plays on the football. He will tackle. He will challenge wide receivers at the line of scrimmage. He has the traits you’re looking for.”