Opinion

Article Reaching for Talent: Saints' Rookies Upending the Notion of 'Draft Value'

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Credit: Stephen Lew - USA TODAY Sports
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Credit: Christian Petersen - Getty Images

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By Dan Levy - Staff Writer - Saintsreport.com

Eight games into the 2022 season, and the Saints’ performance has been undeniably one of ups and downs—and disappointment, to say the least. While the black-and-gold are still very much in the playoff hunt thanks to a lackluster division, early struggles with injuries, turnovers, penalties, and overall inefficiency have been made even more frustrating considering the fanfare that surrounded an exciting offseason.

So it was nice to see, for the first time on Sunday, the Saints put together a complete game versus the Las Vegas Raiders. But what may have been lost in the excitement of a dominant 24-0 shutout was the critical contributions of two Saints rookies: WR Chris Olave and CB Alontae Taylor. This was not the first game in which the pair of youngsters had shined, and despite missing a game and a half, Olave still leads all rookie receivers in yards and receptions and is currently the favorite for Offensive Rookie of the Year. Taylor, for his part, would likely be in the same position, had he not been limited by eary injuries and buried in a crowded defensive backfield.

In many ways, Olave and Taylor are mirrors of one another. Despite possessing elite athleticism and putting together productive college careers at top-tier universities, both were considered “reaches” by draft prognosticators. The Saints were panned widely for trading up to the 11th pick in the first round to draft Olave. Likewise, the choice of Taylor in the 2nd round—49th overall—was considered jumping the gun, since most draft boards had him going between the third and the fifth round. That pick, in particular, was also divisive among Saints fans, who did not see the value in “reaching” for a CB—a position of relative strength for the Saints—rather than focusing on other more pressing needs.

Yes, both Olave and Taylor possess elite athleticism and pedigree. Yes, both were considered “reaches” for where the Saints drafted them. And, yes, both have been productive on the field this season. But if you want to really understand their parallel trajectories, you have to look at what sets these two players apart from the competition—something that all of the stopwatches, lifts, drills, and tests in the world simply cannot capture.

Chris Olave

Full disclosure: I consider myself somewhat of a Chris Olave evangelist. Long before the Saints drafted him I went on the record calling him the most NFL-ready—if not the best, period—WR in the draft. I also predicted (which I rarely do) that he would win Offensive Rookie of the Year. And to be honest, I don’t consider either of these assessments to be particularly edgy.

All it takes is a substantive look at Olave’s film. As always, I recommend watching the plays at half-speed.

https://www.youtube.com/clip/UgkxCoafYMTfogtRx8WJS_ENrMHaIaG8vbij

We’re going to start here, late in the game versus the Raiders, in a 3rd & 5 situation. The Saints come out in 11 personnel, with Olave is aligned wide to the boundary. He is facing man coverage. The CB is aligned in press technique, inside leverage. The Saints have a very basic call: all three WRs are running 3-step slants, and the tight end is running a flat route.

Before we break down Olave, I want to direct your attention to the bottom of the screen, where Marquez Callaway has the exact same assignment and is facing the exact same coverage. Callaway uses a diamond release—stemming outside to sell the fade and open the CB’s hips—to gain inside position on the slant. This is standard for any WR toolbox, and Callway does gain position on the route.
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Now check out Olave on the exact same route. Where Callaway has to push a few yards vertical to get the CB to open and gain position, Olave achieves the exact same objective—and more—in a much shorter space. This allows him to not only get out of his break faster, but achieve far more separation. Whereas a throw to Callaway would have been contested, Olave is able to completely turn the CB around, forcing him to speed turn on his recovery and giving Dalton a clear, easy throw on the slant. The extra separation also turns what would typically be a 5 or 6-yard gain into a 13-yard gain.
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https://youtube.com/clip/UgkxHbH5jvPDosWTNUPn942g27tWszF65XeR

Olave, in fact, has a knack for spinning defenders around, forcing them to open the gate early and using his smooth, efficient breaks to make the most of the separation. Here, we go back to the Cardinals game, where his ability to sell the vertical and snap off his route at just the right moment creates extra separation for the easy throw, catch, and run.

https://youtube.com/clip/UgkxxNp3ZE9SYdjtRbzVClBX6uN5JdJfxn4X

One area where Olave has impressed me the most is his ability to excel in the slot. It is one thing to play on the perimeter, where there is less traffic and the rules are more understood. It is another to play inside, where space moves and shifts and WRs have to know how to both locate said space and manipulate defenders. Here is a great example of Olave doing just that: finding the window, sticking to the outside, establishing line of sight with his QB, and then immediately turning inside after the catch to protect himself and avoid the big hit. This is another great example of his spatial awareness and football IQ.

https://youtube.com/clip/UgkxWq7sCrfqktvhdsV-WeLczEt2oFXUjjsc

Here, Olave is back in the slot, running a stick (or search) route. He understands that he has to square up the LB, threatening the inside, to prevent him from immediately widening in his drop. If the LB does widen, Olave can settle in the space that he vacates. Because he doesn’t, Olave snaps the route to the outside, settles between the LB and the CB, and makes a clean catch.

https://youtube.com/clip/UgkxvxZQ2EUspqPfFAIBfYEhQTZzwKgs98nf

Last but not least, this is just a fantastic veteran play by Olave. For starters, his route is perfect, and if Dalton hadn’t been facing pressure, it would have been an easy completion to Olave on the dig. This would be enough to grade him out perfectly on the play, but his ability to immediately recognize the QB being flushed, then stop on a dime and adjust to the off-schedule play, finding open space for a clean throw and catch—you just don’t see this very often out of rookie.

Alontae Taylor

Unlike Olave, Alontae Taylor has only started two games this season. But much like his draft classmate, he has played like a seasoned veteran.

https://youtube.com/clip/UgkxJOkLB6_01scH4LvKi9zC3YRjfgj3DQjK

Taylor spent most of the game matched up against Davante Adams, a veteran wide receiver who is considered to be one of the best in the league. It just so happened that the game ended with Adams having his lowest reception total in years, and this clip shows exactly why. Here we see Taylor in press man vs. Adams. The Raiders tried to test the rookie CB early, here with a straight fade to their best WR. Taylor does a great job from the snap, using his hands to widen Adams in his release and immediately snapping his hips around to get in phase. By getting—and staying—in phase, Taylor establishes position on the fade, squeezing Adams to the sidelines and giving the QB less space to place the ball.
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The result is not only an incompletion, but an Offensive Pass Interference call that the officials miss (credit the veteran Adams for knowing how to guide the CB past him and not get caught). But because of Taylor’s technique, speed, and awareness to leverage the WR toward the sideline, even an All Pro like Adams isn’t able to reel it in.

As an aside, while Taylor played well in a number of techniques, his press man ability was elite. This was the second week in a row that he had matched up against a top veteran receiver and really locked them down in press coverage. What makes this such a strength for Taylor isn’t just his speed and length, but rather his awareness (much like Olave’s ability to excel in selling routes).
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These are shots from a different play but they demonstrate why Taylor is so good at the line. The WR uses a split release to try to gain separation for the fade, but Taylor never reacts to their first move. He stays patient, times his punch well, and then gets in phase to squeeze the WR toward the sidelines. This also translates to how he plays other routes.

https://youtube.com/clip/UgkxeTnE2AHzRuh6HXi5L8a0FfsaxxgtZMno

Here we see Taylor matched up against the Raiders’ tight end on a crossing route. Both Taylor’s recovery speed and ball skills are on display, but what sticks out to me is how he doesn’t cheat with his eyes. Coming out of the break, his eyes are glued to the tight end’s hip, and it is not until the TE turns for the reception that Taylor both accelerates and looks for the ball. He understands that as a DB, you have to earn your right to look back for the ball by getting into position first. As he gets more snaps, his break angles are also going to improve (he played it safe and tried to run through the TE for the INT rather than jumping underneath him) and those deflections are going to become interceptions.

https://youtube.com/clip/UgkxkS2OusTCZTAfW4_P75e1GtTVGY_Cxx5q

Let’s roll it back to the Cardinals game, where Taylor is matched up in press man vs. Rondale Moore in the red zone. Again he stays disciplined at the snap, not reacting to the WR’s first move and timing his punch well. He attacks the inside hip, gets in phase and leverages the sideline, and as soon as Moore’s head snaps around, so does Taylor’s—because he has earned the right to look back for the ball. And just like on the fade by Adams, Moore commits an OPI because Taylor has position and there is no space for him to make the catch.

This is just outstanding veteran play coming from a rookie CB.

The Art of “Reaching”

For whatever reason, neither Alontae Taylor nor Chris Olave were ranked the best at their respective positions going into the draft, and when the dust settled, both were considered reaches. But the Saints had a strong formula here: draft for speed and intelligence. Chris Olave isn’t just the best route-runner in his class—he’s one of the best route-runners in the NFL. And Taylor? Well, even at arguably the most competitive position on the team, it will be hard for the Saints’ coaches to take him off the field once everyone is healthy. In two games he has simply locked down every receiver he’s matched up against, and for anyone who was paying attention at the time, you could tell that this kid was special as soon as you heard his first post-draft interview.

These two rookies played a massive role in the Saints’ turnaround this past weekend. And if this team is truly going to defy the odds, win the division, and push for a playoff run, both of them will be critical.

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