WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — At the end of last season, Saints rookie cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste, the team’s second-round draft pick, bemoaned: “I really don’t know what the plans are for me. I’m feeling lost right now.”
Fast-forward to Wednesday’s morning practice session at The Greenbrier.
Jean-Baptiste — spender of 12 weeks on the inactive list in 2014, with only a single special-teams tackle to show for the four games in which he did suit up; generally tabbed the biggest bust in the Saints Lost Boys draft class of ’14 — was taking snaps with the first-team defense.
To be sure, it was mainly because Keenan Lewis left practice early with an undisclosed injury.
But even before Wednesday, the much-maligned Jean-Baptiste had muscled his way past Brian Dixon and Terrence Frederick, free agents who earned starting jobs late last year while SJB looked on, veteran free-agent signee Kyle Wilson and 2015 draft picks P.J. Williams and Damian Swann to earn regular second-team reps.
So maybe now we know.
“It’s nothing to get too excited about,” said Jean-Baptiste, whose eight non-special-teams snaps last year all came in the Detroit game. “But it was another chance to show the coaches what I can do out here and hopefully what I can do on Sundays.”
Obviously, it’s too soon to say that this will last.
But just as obviously, it was too soon to write SJB off.
The 6-foot-3, 218-pounder from Nebraska looks like a lankier version of Brandon Browner, with the reach to give him good coverage skills plus the strength to aid in run support.
He is just — as the Saints pointed out when they took him with the 58th pick — a project, someone who played defense only in his final two seasons in college after converting from wide receiver.
It’s OK to look at tackle Andrus Peat, this year’s first round pick, and quarterback Garrett Grayson, taken in the third round, in that light.
But not for cornerbacks who are expected to contribute right away — especially on a team like last year’s, when Champ Bailey didn’t make the cut and Patrick Robinson and Corey White played their way out of New Orleans as culprits on a defense that finished 31st.
The problem was that in pretty much redshirting SJB, they didn’t seem to communicate to him what their plans were for him down the road. “I’m not reflecting on how he felt last year,” Saints coach Sean Payton said Wednesday. “He is just further along right now.
He’s gotten more consistent at the line with his leverage, all of the little things. If you are lining up at corner every play and you are defending the whole route tree, you have to be able to reduce what you see, and I think he is beginning to play a little smarter with better technique.”
That would probably be good for SJB to hear.
But he said he never had that heart-to-heart with his coaches about where he stood, or stands, choosing instead to work things out on his own.
“I just left things alone,” he said. “I figured they knew what they were doing and that I was where I should be. So I got over it.”
There were offseason conversations with the team’s veteran defensive backs, but nothing that particularly stands out — just the usual “be patient; your time is coming” stuff.
Jean-Baptiste did say he learned the importance of detailed film study from Lewis and Browner and, as predicted, things started slowing down on the field as a result.
“I don’t think I really knew what to expect coming out of college even though we watched a lot of film at Nebraska,” SJB said. ”I just heard things moved faster, but I didn’t know what that meant.
“I just had to buckle down to understand it.”
SJB also fully embraced contributing on special teams, citing that enthusiasm as mandatory for anyone who isn’t a starter.
And maybe most importantly, he filtered out any outside noise about what he should or should not be doing. As Payton pointed out, being able to handle criticism is a prerequisite for a cornerback.
Jean-Baptiste spent the offseason in his hometown of Miami, where friends were not so demanding as to why he had been a nonentity as a rookie.
“I thought I was ready to play, and I got pretty impatient about it,” SJB said. “Now I realize that maybe it was better for me to watch last year.”
And now, just maybe, it’s Jean-Baptiste’s opportunity to justify the Saints’ faith in him.