Paulson Adebo was under fire.
First game, first exposure to an NFL stage, the Ravens were coming after him. Play after play, the ball was going Adebo’s direction. One game isn’t enough to prove that you belong, but sometimes it is enough to show that you do not. This moment belonged to Adebo, whether he wanted it or not. The Saints rookie cornerback was in coverage for 21 snaps, and the ball came his way seven times.
He passed the test nearly every single time the ball came his way. While it is too soon to know for sure, there is now enough evidence to suggest that New Orleans might have found a player. The Saints believe it, and they can tell Adebo is starting to believe the same things about himself, which might be the most essential aspect of all of this.
“The proof over what needs to be proven is internal,” defensive backs coach Kris Richard said. “So, the proof is, you’re capable of playing on this level. Because the reality is, the ball is always coming. Whether they target you seven times or not, it doesn’t really make a difference because it’s always coming until it doesn’t. The cool thing is it actually came during the game, so we got to see him execute at the point of attack.”
When the Saints selected Adebo in the third round, they weren’t necessarily looking for someone who could come in and start right away. The team has continued to label the position as a need, especially after the retirement of Patrick Robinson last week. New Orleans viewed Adebo as a player with good measurables and a solid set of skills that needed refinement. In other words, they felt he was a little raw, especially after sitting out the 2020 season due to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic.
Adebo might be a little further along than initially expected. The rookie has shown the ability to make plays on the ball. The main things for him moving forward are becoming consistent at the line of scrimmage, making the game slow down and approaching things at the pace and tempo the team wants to play at instead of allowing the receiver to dictate those things to him.
These are the things New Orleans knew Adebo needed to work on, and he should get better at them. The assessment also seems fair. Adebo was in press coverage on 14 snaps against Baltimore, and there were a few plays, including ones where the ball went somewhere else, where you can spot a false step, or the play where he misplayed his jam and ended up getting flagged for illegal contact.
“You see normal things with rookies just trying to get used to some of the concepts,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “But his natural ability pops off in the tape. His recovery, his ability to close on the ball is really special. The biggest thing is cleaning up his footwork at the line of scrimmage, which will come with time. But I mean, I think he’s been impressive — to see him come in and be where he is as a rookie. He’s gonna play some quality snaps for us this year.”
The fact that Adebo needs a little work with his footwork at the line of scrimmage isn’t a big surprise. He didn’t play a ton of press coverage while at Stanford and surrendered 20 receptions on 30 targets while playing press coverage in 2019. But he excelled at it in 2018, giving up 13 catches on 30 targets with three interceptions. Perhaps all he needs is to settle back in, get comfortable, and keep proving that he can do all of these things on an NFL stage.
“Just trying to make sure my technique is right at the beginning of the route because if you lose there it kind of puts you in bad way,” Adebo said. “Being able to win at the line and then letting your feet win.”
New Orleans still has decisions to make at cornerback this season. If they don’t find someone to bring in, then Adebo or Ken Crawley will have to start opposite Marshon Lattimore to start the season. Crawley has worked ahead of Adebo all offseason, but the rookie could continue to close the gap if he maintains this level throughout the preseason.
Right now, Crawley appears to have the inside track on the job. He’s working ahead of Adebo on the depth chart and has played well enough to have a rightful claim for the job. Crawley has covered well throughout camp and has shown an increased ability to get his hands on the ball with several passes defensed and interceptions during training camp. Crawley only has one career interception. So, if what he’s showing now translates into the season, there are reasons for optimism.
Richard believes it will. He has worked with Crawley on doing a better job of locking in one route and finding ways to adjust to the others, which can help up the odds of getting your hands on the ball.
“When you walk up to the line of scrimmage, and you’re conscious of saying, ‘I’m going to own one route, and it doesn’t matter what you do after that,’ well when you start seeing the one route, you’re going to own those,” Richard said. “And then when you start seeing other routes, you’re comfortable to key and break and diagnose because you’re in a dominant position.”
New Orleans needs one of the two to step up and continue to be what they’ve been in practices. The fact that Adebo can compete and be in a position where he is putting together a convincing resume is a surprise and one of the more positive developments of camp. But he has to keep it going during the final two preseason games against Jacksonville and Arizona. Even then, it might not be enough to bypass Crawley if the veteran continues to play well. Even if both things go well, an outside option still might be the best option.
But Adebo has a chance this season, and it looks like he has significant upside for the future. He just needs to keep surviving the fire.