Trainer Lorenzo Spikes says Alontae Taylor sees ‘the little things’ to excel with Saints
The New Orleans Saints are skilled at finding diamonds in the rough – both in free agency and in the NFL draft – and no prospect exemplifies that like rookie defensive back Alontae Taylor. The No. 49 pick has a clear duality: Taylor the person, and Taylor the player. Both check a lot of boxes that the team not only searches for in draft prospects but covets in veteran players. A cursory search on Day 2 of the 2022 NFL draft left me impressed by Taylor’s traits on and off the field. He fits New Orleans’ athletic prototype at 6-foot-1 and 199 pounds – with 32 1/4-inch arms – Taylor certainly has the physical makeup you’d covet in a defensive back.
Yet, the initial reaction focused on, frankly, irrelevant factors in evaluating the prospect. Mainly, team-based need and previously-traded draft capital. After losing their No. 101 pick in the pre-draft trade with the Philadelphia Eagles (along with a slew of future picks), the team sent Washington Nos. 16, 98, and 120 picks to trade up for Chris Olave. This left New Orleans with no picks after Taylor’s selection until Round 5; a consequent skewed importance was placed on the Tennessee player. If you take a step back, assess the team’s draft history in the secondary, and look past initial grades, it’s all but a quintessential Saints pick. I was intrigued by the potential and already-tested versatility of Taylor, so I spoke with someone who has worked closely with him since the seventh grade: former Florida Gators wide receiver and Taylor’s trainer, Lorenzo “Zo” Spikes.
Initially a quarterback in high school, formerly a wide receiver, and recruited as a wideout by the Volunteers, Taylor found his way to defensive back. Spikes was with Taylor through the entirety of his transition; one Taylor was initially lukewarm to, partial to wanting the ball in his hands. But he’s had a clear sense of pragmatism – rare for a college-aged player – from a young age. Spikes and Taylor focused on receiver and defensive back in their early training days, despite Taylor being the starting quarterback for his high school team.
“He kind of knew well, before probably anyone else did, that he was going to be on one side of the ball or the other – at another position other than quarterback,” Spikes told me. “I think it broke through when he got to Tennessee, and he realized it was going to the defensive side. I’m not sure that he was happy or elated, or upset or anything, but I knew you could put Alontae anywhere and he’s going to play.”
So, Taylor became the first freshman defensive back to start the season opener for the Volunteers since 2013. Saints fans have recent familiarity with a player who made a similar switch: Paulson Adebo. And Adebo made it look absurdly easy to do so. In my time as a student with the Scouting Academy, I was surprised at the level of emphasis placed on something seemingly so basic as footwork. But it’s all but the most critical component at defensive back. And while we might see the logic in the switch from wide receiver to cornerback in terms of matchup and overlapping skill sets, there’s a big difference on the defensive end: backpedaling versus running straight.
It’s not exactly intuitive, and not as easy as some athletes make it look. There’s a necessary agility factor that gets emphasized when learning the fluidity required at the role. Even pure defensive players struggle with changing direction and agility without the proper technique. Spikes made sure to instill it in Taylor at a young age. In our conversation, I mentioned my background as a soccer player and Spikes knew I’d be familiar with ladders.
“As you know, as a young player, it’s important that you get that training and footwork on a ladder first,” Spikes said. “Parents want [him] to play sports, and whether the kid shows interest in basketball, football, or baseball, it’s important to go on your driveway and draw a ladder on the ground or purchase one and start that work early.”
That early preparation proved crucial, and Spikes made a good point for young players to value that experience – especially at wide receiver and defensive back. Taylor and Adebo won’t be the first, nor the last, former wideouts to get moved to the secondary. Even further, it awards those versatile players an invaluable edge.
“Alontae can kind of project what the receivers are going to do based on what we taught him from that side of the ball,” Spikes continued. “Getting that experience at the college level, it helped him understand the offensive side of the ball. Understand sets, read defenses, and read receivers and what routes they may be running – or tricks they may use to get open.”
What immediately stood out was the intelligence and football acumen of Taylor to amass a holistic understanding of multiple positions. Those smarts have allowed him to ascend at a fast rate. Spikes noticed his vision of seeing the play develop has grown to a level he never saw in high school – he admittedly was less accurate. That takes a level of football IQ that can’t necessarily be taught. Taylor is an athlete through and through; he picks things up quickly with the right training due to his smarts. Those traits in tandem stand out in Taylor’s background. My natural curiosity about any additional sports followed – specifically baseball. Spikes told me that he indeed played baseball and could’ve chosen just about any sport from track to football. My focus on that particular sport, and the translating traits it lends, was affirmed by Spikes – ball skills and field vision.
“Hand-eye coordination, being able to see the ball coming in the air, tracking them,” Spikes observed. “If you know the ball is in the air, being able to have that coordination, you see the track and evaluate where it’s going to land, the trajectory of the ball, and so on. You have a split second to evaluate all that once the ball is released from the quarterback’s hand. And he has the ability to do that.”
I zeroed in on baseball because it correlates with key skills at another position – safety. It might be moot, but on draft night I wondered if Taylor was potentially primed to make that switch. That was the more obvious need in the secondary. Now that Tyrann Mathieu is signed to start opposite Marcus Maye in Dennis Allen’s two-deep vision at the role, that immediate need is relaxed. Allen has said they see Taylor as a cornerback, and it’s probable that he’ll compete at that position in training camp. But there’s been a heightened emphasis on overall versatility in the secondary this offseason in the transition to Allen’s tenure. Spikes thinks Taylor – if needed – can make that switch.
“It goes back to him being smart enough to make that switch, and he’s got the capability to do that,” Spikes said. “He’s a physical guy, a physical player. He’s not going to just let the receiver get into his routes. That’s one thing I love about him as an offensive side of the ball guy. He knew that as a receiver, your job is to get into the route and not get harassed by the defensive back. I teach my receivers to forget the guy in front of you, do your thing, and blow him up. Alontae has that same mentality – he’s going to take that challenge of whoever you put in front of him, whether at cornerback or safety.”
Looking at a safety versus a cornerback, intelligence and field vision are emphasized – traits Taylor possesses. It requires higher physicality and a willingness to tackle. I noted my surprise at his aggressive nature given that he grew up primarily as an offensive player; not that it’s exclusive to defenders. But as a former one myself, it’s a different mentality from the start. Allow yourself to be similarly taken aback as Taylor casually embodies a linebacker:
Excuse me 😂😂 https://t.co/08Y4hGeFZj
— Maddy Hudak (@MaddyHudak_94) April 30, 2022
“He’s not going to run away from the tackle,” Spikes continued. “He’s not going to sidestep you. People don’t always go back, look at the tape, and see how many times he did that. He is the kind of guy that is going to take you on, hit up, and try to aggressively take you out. That mentality has transformed even more so than when he was learning as a wide receiver. I think he takes great pride in, ‘I’m not gonna let you run over me. I’m going to take you out before you take me out.’ He’s not going to do it for the cameras and it’s never personal – he’ll always walk up to you at the end of the game. He’s just trying to find his best way to get the ball carrier. That’s his job.”
I was candid with Spikes that initially, the reaction was: what position is he going to play, and why? No one really had him on their draft boards, especially not linked to the Saints. You’re ultimately talking about a player who grew up at quarterback, excelled at wide receiver, and has grown into a formidable leader as a defensive back with the tackling abilities of a box safety. Qualities one can only expect to flourish under the coaching of Kris Richard. He also has the swagger and willingness to “make some noise” out there and talk a little smack – all but necessary qualities on this team’s defense.
“He’s going to talk, but he’s more of a player,” Spikes said. “He’s watching the little things across the field: the quarterback’s eyes, the wide receiver, the running back coming out of the backfield. That’s why I think advantageously, they could put him anywhere. They could put him at safety or cornerback, and he’s going to be good at either one of them. He’ll take that challenge. He has the mentality to move forward into the NFL, to make that type of switch.”
“And you’re not going to hear any complaints from the kid. He’s just going to do it. I’ve watched him grow up and I love him to death. He’s become a really giving human. He’s going to be able to take from that and become a good teammate for these guys.”
Those human qualities are often critically forgotten in the shuffle of the draft. They’re perhaps the most important part of Alontae Taylor and what he brings as a person and player. As a student-athlete, Taylor served as Co-President of Tennessee’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), was voted by his peers as Vice Chair of the SEC Leadership Council, and led his team’s secondary as captain. And he’s always been a leader and cornerstone of his communities. Taylor would return to his hometown in Manchester, Ten. for every rival game at his high school (aptly known as the “Coffee Pot” in Coffee County) – and made the three to four-hour trip back each time for early morning practice.
“Everyone has a story. They all have an Alontae Taylor experience,” Spikes mentioned an anecdote of a child who was sick that Taylor gave his jersey to. He would call him and stayed in touch with the young boy in Coffee County for his entire college career. That’s just what he does. He embraces and stays with a community. Qualities that should quickly endear him to New Orleanians and his future involvement in the community. We discussed his Senior Bowl experience where he stopped his position coach from moving to the next drill because his teammate hadn’t gotten a rep in yet. It was a risk – at an event that image is everything – that paid off. Teams took note. Hard to think one of those wasn’t New Orleans.
The Saints stand above the rest in terms of being able to find players otherwise looked over, and ones that fit the vision and versatility at whichever role – but especially in the secondary. They value character qualities like leadership in the backfield; normally sought in veteran players, it’s notable that they selected defensive players who were captains.
“There’s something about the Saints and the organization,” Spikes said as an outside observer. “They can find that guy that nobody seemed to want or seems to see the same things on him. You heard Taylor is going to go anywhere from the fourth to the seventh round. It doesn’t make a difference who you are, where you come from, or where you’re at. They’re doing their homework, and they’re finding these little diamonds in the rough. Whether it’s a solid contract for four or five years, or a guy that they can bring in for a couple of years to fill that void. They seem to find that guy all the time.”
Indeed, they do. I recall similar rash reactions to then-unfamiliar Pete Werner in the second round of last year’s draft; it was deemed inexplicable that a third-round cornerback in Adebo who hadn’t played a down in over a season was a good pick that solved a need. C.J. Gardner-Johnson – a fellow former Gator Spikes looks forward to meeting and taking in Taylor – came out of the fourth round with low expectations. People weren’t memorably thrilled with Marcus Williams out of Utah. Last season taught me a lesson in trusting the people in the profession I analyze from the outside. Spikes sees it too.
“Over the years, they’ve been able to see things in players that everyone seems to skip over,” Spikes observed of the team. “They see something else, or they see a vision of moving them into another position or role. They can evaluate a little better, I think, than some teams can.”
At what point have Allen, the front office that remains consistent from under Sean Payton, Jeff Ireland, and the scouting department earned the benefit of the doubt to do what they do best? At which point do we trust the new head coach, a former Texas A&M safety, who revamped New Orleans’ defense since 2015, to find the right players for their vision? You don’t take someone at No. 49 overall with no picks till Round 5 and have no plan in place.
“That’s an intentional pick. That’s not a swing,” Spikes said.
“Not all players are going to fit all systems,” Spikes added. “But New Orleans saw something they liked, and that he was a good fit for what he can do. Getting into the NFL and going up against the footwork of pro players is completely different. The speed of the game is twice as fast. You have to think a lot faster, and everything is one fluid motion. With Taylor getting to the level he is now, and him being able to see things develop, his smarts will help him see things develop a little bit faster even at the NFL level.”
I’m inclined to agree. And that was prior to nearly an hourlong conversation delving into the traits of Alontae Taylor with someone who knows him best. He comes off incredibly coachable with excellent football IQ – and a quick learner. He possesses the mentality of a Saints defender in aggressiveness and physicality. A willing tackler, Taylor wants to come up and make that stop. A former quarterback, Taylor can scan the field in tandem with his opponent under center and keep players in his peripheral vision. A former wide receiver, Taylor not only knows all their tricks at the line, but he knows exactly how to stop them – and disrupt their routes with smarts and press skills.
A versatile football chameleon since 9th grade, Taylor could easily switch to safety. But he might excel even more as a looming physical cornerback with some man coverage coaching by Richard. Oh, and 4.36 speed. He has the leadership and character to become a cornerstone in the locker room and in the backfield. Taylor is perhaps the pick most reflective of the Saints’ unique abilities in the NFL draft.