The 2021 NFL Draft class was filled to the brim with elite cornerback prospects. Nine were selected in the first two rounds, yet still after the first 64 picks, several talented DBs remained available. Among the names not yet called was Stanford corner, and two-time All-Pac 12 defender, Paulson Adebo.
Adebo sat out the 2020 season due to COVID concerns. That decision sent him plummeting down draft boards. But why? Adebo was considered a CB1 by several analysts prior to the 2020 college football season. Sitting out this last season didn’t hurt Ja’Marr Chase’s stock, or Gregory Rousseau’s, or Caleb Farley’s. Did NFL scouts see something that turned them away from Adebo, or was he merely forgotten about, lost among a sea of top talent at the position? I mean Jaycee Horn has an incredible track record. Patrick Surtain was as consistent as they come. Caleb Farley showed flashes of elite ball-tracking skills, and Asante Samuel Jr. is Asante Samuel’s son. They are all too good to pass up. Then, you have other guys like the insanely fast Eric Stokes, and Greg Newsome, who has an instinct for the game unlike anyone else in the 2021 class. Yet despite all these talented individuals, Adebo might have the highest floor of them all.
Paulson Adebo, a third-round selection of the Saints, isn’t the most physically gifted corner from April’s draft. He’s only 6-foot-1, 198 pounds and doesn’t have blazing speed, but he is a shutdown zone corner. That’s a player that absolutely every NFL team can use.
Adebo is heading to New Orleans camp in pursuit of that number two outside corner slot opposite Marshon Lattimore. While Adebo played outside corner for most of his career, the responsibilities that come with that position probably wouldn’t play to Adebo’s skillset very well. If there’s one negative I can say about Adebo, it’s that he struggles in man coverage. Not because he can’t keep up with receivers, but because he loves to take his eyes off receivers. Against UCF in 2019, Adebo was beaten constantly on the outside. Almost any double move pulled by Gabriel Davis would fool Adebo, but Davis wasn’t beating Adebo. Adebo was beating himself. Adebo tries too hard to be a ball hawk and in his efforts to force turnovers, he turns his head to find the ball in the air. NFL receivers will always take advantage of that tendency. They won’t hesitate to bust down the field as soon as Adebo commits to looking away. And since Adebo doesn’t have the speed to catch up, that won’t end well very often.
This is a tendency that Adebo will have to break if he wants to become an elite corner in the NFL. However, even if Adebo fails to break that bad habit, he can still provide valuable skills to any team that needs him. Adebo’s floor is a nickel corner who exclusively covers the hook zone in a cloud Cover 3, and that’s a great floor for any player to have. At his very worst, Adebo is someone who excels when not having to focus on one receiver in particular and has great closing speed against screens and halfbacks catching the ball in the flats. Adebo’s strength is his ability to read the quarterback (and that’s probably why he likes to look back in man coverage). While that strength can be a detriment in man-to-man, it’s a huge plus in zone.
When Adebo is allowed to watch the quarterback as he pleases, he is able to diagnose plays and recognize where the ball is headed better than anyone in this draft class (yes, better than Surtain, better than Horn, better than Farley). He can also make great plays on the ball when he sees it coming in. Those two attributes lead me to believe that the role best suited for Adebo’s skills would be free safety. At that position, Adebo would be allowed to watch the quarterback’s eyes as much as he pleases while also being in a spot where he can come down and make plays on halfbacks in the second level, or drop back and follow deep receivers without the threat of getting burned on a double move (because who in their right mind makes a double move 15 yards downfield). Theoretically, it’s a match made in heaven.
Do I think Adebo could still succeed at the cornerback position? Absolutely. He possesses several of the tools necessary for success on the outside. While his flaws as a defender may stop him from becoming elite at the position right now, his strengths will prevent him from becoming a bust. Adebo has the potential to become the best defensive back out of this loaded 2021 class. He is the safest selection of every DB from the 2021 class. At the very worst, he’ll have a long, fruitful career bouncing from team to team filling very specific defensive roles — a Josh Norman-type if you will. At the very best...the sky’s the limit.
Adebo is a former wide receiver turned corner out of Stanford. We’ve seen that story before and this one might go down in a similar way.