Saints film room: Exploring Alontae Taylor’s fit on defense

You can see everything the Saints saw in Alontae Taylor pretty quickly.

His size immediately stands out when he lines up at cornerback, in the kind of way that makes you take notice. There aren’t too many players who stand 6 feet tall, weigh 200 pounds and have Taylor’s sub-4.40 speed. In fact, there were only 12 of those guys who took snaps at cornerback last year, including Patrick Peterson, Stephon Gilmore and Jaycee Horn.

Now, that isn’t to say Taylor will be Peterson, Gilmore or Horn, only that he shares traits with them, and those traits are challenging to find packaged in one player. Some people immediately argued that Taylor was a reach in his draft slot. Time will tell if such things are true, but it is easy to see why the Saints drafted Taylor and the type of player they believe he can develop into in time.

Taylor is an extremely impressive athlete when everything clicks for him. His recognition comes and goes, but when he sees the play correctly, he can use his athletic ability and length to cover a lot of ground and make plays. One of the plays that best illustrate his talent came against Mississippi when he read the quarterback, broke off down the field, and broke up a pass in the end zone.

Taylor is an explosive athlete. He shows excellent recovery speed down the field, has solid press-man techniques, and often had a plan at the line of scrimmage for how he wanted to attack receivers. His feel for playing press coverage is there, which could help him get on the field early with the Saints. But some of Taylor’s most impressive snaps came in off coverage or zone coverage, which is why so many believe that he’d be good playing safety.

When Taylor sees things well, his ability to break down on plays is truly impressive. He closes with explosive speed. There are several examples of Taylor reading the quarterback to make a play on a pass to the flats. He uses those same traits to sit back in coverage and patiently wait for a moment to jump a route and had a handful of broken-up passes and an interception by playing the quarterback that way. Taylor’s closing speed allows him to wait until the last second to make a play.

Taylor has some things that he will need to develop before he’s ready to compete with Paulson Adebo for a starting job. As good as his play recognition is, there are times when Taylor can get caught in the wrong spots or playing a coverage wrong. No one should ever be judged exclusively by their best plays or worst plays, but there was a good example of some of this rawness against Mississippi. Taylor got caught on a double move instead of playing to his inside help and surrendered a touchdown.

Nothing about that play is telling other than seeing a player who is relatively new to the position making a mistake. Given Taylor’s other examples of seeing the field well and reacting accordingly, nothing about this should be considered a fatal flaw. The play is simply an example of the areas where Taylor would need to get coached up by co-defensive coordinator Kris Richard, which will happen.

The other thing that popped out as a potential area for improvement is how Taylor defends against hitch routes and other plays with a sudden change of direction toward the quarterback. It’s hard to tell if Taylor identifies these routes a step late, has a technique issue, or simply takes a little while to plant and turn, but he did get beat on a handful of hitches last year. This will be something that he needs to improve upon in the NFL.

Taylor will also need to become a more consistent tackler. He’s more than willing to get in the mix and sometimes is even an explosive tackler. But he missed at least eight tackles last year, if not more, and will need to clean that up before next season.

The Saints look like they drafted a player with great traits and significant upside. Taylor should immediately be a contributor to special teams and eventually develop into a good cornerback. He has all the traits needed to succeed at his primary position, and he’s coming into a situation where he should receive great coaching from a staff with a track record of developing defensive backs. No one can question Richard’s work in Seattle or with Adebo last season.

Taking Taylor in the second round means he is expected to eventually be a starter on the outside. This pick will only be successful if that happens. The good thing is, there is really no pressure immediately because Adebo is here to hold down the job. At some point, perhaps all of these guys find a way on the field, given that Taylor has the flexibility to play outside cornerback, in the slot and at safety.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about this selection is we’re starting to see a clear type emerge at cornerback. Adebo just about made the list of players who checked all the boxes that Taylor did. The Stanford product measured in at 6-foot-1, 199 pounds and ran a 4.42 40-yard dash.

That pick is working out. Perhaps the Taylor one will, as well.

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