After the Saints selected him in the fifth round of the 2012 draft, cornerback Corey White chose jersey No. 24 because that was the number worn by the two NFL players whom he considered the best at his position: Darrelle Revis and Champ Bailey.
Little could he imagine that 12-time Pro Bowler Bailey would end up being his teammate. And little did he know he’d spark a mini-controversy by not giving up 24 when Bailey casually asked White whether he wanted to keep the number but didn’t express an interest in buying it.
“Champ’s not really bothered by it, “ White said Thursday after a organized team activities practice at Saints headquarters in Metairie, echoing prior remarks from Bailey, who settled on No. 27 and assured it was no big deal. “When I got drafted, I got 24 because of the premier cornerbacks in the league, like Champ, like ... Revis. That’s the number I wanted because of them.”
White admitted he has improvements to make if he wants to be remembered as another great No. 24. But he takes heart knowing how much he grew from his experiences in 2013 as he vies to remain in a spot near the top of a cornerback group that had 11 players Thursday, when the Saints depth chart admittedly was far from being finalized.
According to Pro Football Focus, quarterbacks throwing against White in 2013 went 38-of-67 (56.7 percent) for 451 yards and four touchdowns as well as a 91.1 passer rating. White had an interception and five pass deflections over those 18 regular-season and playoff games, including eight starts, as he became a stalwart in the lineup after veteran Jabari Greer suffered a season-ending knee injury against San Francisco in Week 11. Greer, now released, was hurt after another veteran cornerback — Patrick Robinson — suffered a season-ending knee injury nine weeks earlier.
Pro Football Focus said White surrendered 14 more yards, 10 more receptions and one more touchdown on 15 more targets than Greer did in 10 games and starts, when the Saints were 8-2. White’s promotion to full-time starter coincided with the Saints going 4-4 (2-4 away from home), perhaps creating the impression that he represented a drop in coverage from Greer.
White conceded that he needed to get better at “playing the deep ball.”
“Locating the football is going to be huge for me this year,” he said.
Yet quarterbacks had a better passer rating throwing against Greer (93.3) than White. For that matter, they had a better passer rating (96.1) throwing against Bailey, versus whom quarterbacks completed 65.7 percent of their passes (11.1 percent more than against White).
Meanwhile, the Saints defense finished No. 2 against the pass, in part because quarterbacks could only register a paltry 66.6 passer rating versus Lewis, who led his team with four interceptions.
New Orleans won the first road playoff game in franchise history at Philadelphia on Jan. 4 despite losing Lewis to a third-quarter concussion, leaving White and Rod Sweeting (then an undrafted rookie) to close things out as the top cornerbacks.
“When Jabari went down, they could’ve easily went out and tried to find another corner to replace him,” White said. “But they believed in me. It gave me a lot of confidence going into next season ... and it’s going to be huge for me going forward.”
That confidence in White didn’t prevent the Saints from adding some talent at cornerback. Aside from signing Bailey, whose 52 career interceptions during five seasons with Washington and 10 with Denver are the most among active cornerbacks, they used a second-round pick on rookie Stanley Jean-Baptiste, whose 6-foot-4, 218-pound frame isn’t common for players at the position.
Robinson, a 2010 first-round pick, has recovered enough from his knee injury to fully participate in offseason work. Sweeting and backup cornerback Trevin Wade can count on chances to get in the mix after seeing action in important games late last year.
But if White’s good health continues, there’s no reason to suspect he won’t see plenty of snaps in various packages, no matter who eventually claims the gig to complement Lewis when offseason practices and training camp conclude ahead of Week 1 at Atlanta on Sept. 7.
Bailey, for one, views White as an incumbent who will be tough to unseat.
“He’s a hungry young pro,” Bailey said. “That’s really what I look for in all young players: How bad does he want to be great? And this guy wants to be great.”
His jersey number was just one example of that.