New Orleans Saints: justin gilbert

The New Orleans Saints have overhauled their secondary more than any other position group over the past two years, adding free agents Jairus Byrd, Keenan Lewis and Champ Bailey and first-round draft pick Kenny Vaccaro.

But don't think for a second that the Saints will ignore those positions in the draft -- especially if they get a crack at a top prospect such as Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert or Louisville safety Calvin Pryor.

Both of those top draft prospects are visiting New Orleans this week. Pryor was in town Monday, according to multiple reports. And Gilbert flew to New Orleans on Monday night, according to his own Twitter feed.

(UPDATE: A league source told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Caplan that four other cornerback prospects were also visiting New Orleans on Tuesday, along with Gilbert: Ohio State’s Bradley Roby, Lindenwood’s Pierre Desir, Oklahoma’s Aaron Colvin and Baylor’s Demetri Goodson.)

Cornerback seems like a bigger need for the Saints right now. A rookie such as Gilbert could battle Bailey and others for a starting job immediately. The Saints are more loaded at safety with Byrd and Vaccaro locked up long-term and Rafael Bush recently re-signing a two-year deal.

But the Saints have always proven in the past that they firmly believe in the best-available-player principle in the draft (aside from a handful of positions they really don't need). They demonstrated that again last year, when safety didn't appear to be one of their most glaring needs before they took Vaccaro.

And if anyone can figure out how to plug in a great athlete somewhere, it's creative defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.

The bigger problem with both Gilbert and Pryor is that virtually zero analysts believe there's a chance they could fall to the Saints at No. 27. New Orleans would probably have to trade up to snag one of them.

Gilbert (6-foot, 202 pounds) is especially enticing. He's a sensational athlete who posted the fastest 40-yard dash time of any cornerback at the NFL scouting combine (4.37 seconds) and also served as a standout kickoff returner in college. He returned a total of six kickoffs for touchdowns in college.

Gilbert intercepted seven passes last year for Oklahoma State and returned two of those for touchdowns, as well. However, opinions are a bit mixed on just how high he might go. Some have projected him as a possible top-10 pick, though ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay is admittedly lower on him than most, ranking him 24th overall.

McShay cites Gilbert's inconsistent production and focus. He had a breakout year as a sophomore in 2011 with five interceptions, then had zero as a junior before his terrific senior season.

Perhaps his inconsistency makes Gilbert a risky investment as a top-10 pick. But he sure seems like he'd be a home run for the Saints if he slips into their reach.

Pryor, meanwhile, also seems to be a home run prospect. He's certainly a power hitter.

The 5-11, 207-pounder is known as a big hitter and standout run supporter as an in-the-box safety. He's also athletic enough to hold his own in coverage.

Pryor had seven interceptions and nine forced fumbles in his three-year college career, and he ran the 40 in 4.58 seconds. He is battling Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to become the first safety drafted.

Rice still in play: The Saints are still among the teams in play for free-agent receiver Sidney Rice, according to a league source. The Saints showed interest in Rice earlier this offseason. And he is now cleared to resume football activities after recovering from a torn ACL, according to Pro Football Talk. PFT, which said Rice might sign somewhere soon, also listed the Seattle Seahawks, New York Giants and Carolina Panthers among teams interested in Rice.

Rice, 27, was a dynamic receiver early in his career with the Minnesota Vikings, with a Pro Bowl season in 2009 (1,312 yards, eight touchdowns). But he has battled a series of injuries during the past four years with both the Seahawks (2011-2013) and Vikings (2007-2010).

The 6-foot-4, 202-pounder suffered the torn ACL midway through last season and finished with just 15 catches for 231 yards and three touchdowns in eight games played. In 2012, Rice had 50 catches for 748 yards and seven touchdowns in a full season with the Seahawks.

Herron's draft diary: Another player who made a pre-draft visit to New Orleans recently was Wyoming receiver Robert Herron, a projected mid-round pick. Herron shared a few details from the trip, plus his thoughts on how excited he'd be to join the Saints in a draft diary he's writing for USA Today.

Defensive backs fly at combine

February, 26, 2014
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The NFL scouting combine wrapped up Tuesday with some impressive workouts from many of the top defensive backs. That's good news for the New Orleans Saints, since I think that position group ranks as their No. 1 need this offseason -- especially when you lump the cornerbacks and safeties together.

I think the Saints will address at least one of those positions in free agency, if not both, since they've got some holes in their starting lineup right now. The Saints have already released longtime starting cornerback Jabari Greer and safety Roman Harper. And they could part ways with longtime starting safety Malcolm Jenkins, too, since he'll be an unrestricted free agent on March 11.

The good news is the Saints are set with their No. 1 cornerback in Keenan Lewis and No. 1 safety in Kenny Vaccaro. And they like the potential of young backup safety Rafael Bush and cornerback Corey White. So they don't need a total overhaul.

However, the Saints will certainly consider adding to their secondary depth in the draft, regardless of what happens in free agency. They know you can never have enough talent in the secondary in today's pass-happy NFL.

Since the Saints are picking 27th, they probably won't get a crack at the top two cornerbacks in this year's draft class -- Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert and Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard. But they're worth highlighting since it seems like there will be a pretty interesting debate over the next couple months over which should be drafted first.

Gilbert (6-0, 202) is an athletic marvel who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.37 seconds Tuesday -- the fastest time of any defensive back. He also had one of the strongest bench press performances, among other impressive drills. He also showed big-play potential in college. However, he wasn't as consistent as a “shut-down” corner as Dennard (5-11, 199).

Dennard, meanwhile, seemed to draw just as much praise from draft analysts for posting a time of 4.51 seconds in the 40 Tuesday -- since that's considered fast enough to complement his impressive on-field work in college.

Two highly-touted corners who might be available to the Saints at No. 27 are TCU's Jason Verrett and Ohio State's Bradley Roby, who also posted blazing times in the 40 (4.38 and 4.39 seconds, respectively).

Verrett was a standout cover man in college. NFL teams will just have to get over the fact that he's only 5-9, 189 pounds. That would probably work for the Saints since they use Lewis as their physical press corner against opponents' top receivers. Roby (5-11, 194) was a little less consistent in college but still had a nice career.

The top safety prospects -- Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (6-1, 208) and Louisiville's Calvin Pryor (5-11, 207) -- could also be off the board before the Saints pick. Both of them reportedly helped solidfy their first-round status with impressive workouts at the combine, including matching times of 4.58 seconds in the 40.

Check out this piece by ESPN.com's San Diego Chargers reporter Eric D. Williams for an even more thorough look at how the secondary prospects fared.

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