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Alontae Taylor warms to slot corner for New Orleans Saints defense

"Our floor this year is what our ceiling was last year, and we're hoping to build on that"

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The buy-in wasn't total.

Alontae Taylor wasn't exactly bashful in saying so as he expressed a longing to play outside cornerback for the New Orleans Saints in his second NFL season. It wasn't an outlandish desire, considering the fact that he'd never before played nickel corner, and his learning process literally would begin at the bottom.

But after a sometimes-rocky first season in the slot, Taylor, entering his third season, seems to have warmed to the idea that the vast talents that make him one of the Saints' best 11 defenders are the ones that will allow him to make his mark at nickel, at least for now.

"I think his confidence level is good," Coach Dennis Allen said of Taylor, who sat out the final two minicamp practices with an oblique injury that should not present a problem when next the Saints assemble, at training camp in July.

"I think there were some areas that he could have improved on from last year, I think he's approached it the right way. He's working extremely hard at it. He's a talented player. I would say that to be too harsh on him for his performance last year would be a little unfair in that you're talking about a young guy that's basically playing a position that he really hadn't played. Those things take a little bit of time to get a feel for and I think you'll see an improved player this year."

Defensive coordinator Joe Woods said that he and Taylor took a deep dive into Taylor's play last season to identify mistakes and solutions.

"It was hard for him," Woods said. "It was up and down. I feel like personally, I could have coached him better but making that transition from corner to the nickel, now you're playing in space.

"When you play corner, you have that sideline as an extra defender but now you're in the slot, you've got to defend the inside, the outside, you've got to defend deep. So it's just making that transition, and also being part of the run game.

"I definitely know that he understands it better, just from some of the plays throughout OTAs. He's definitely further along, so I think he'll definitely make strides this season and play more consistently."

During his debut season in the slot – a position Taylor assumed when starter Bradley Roby was released after training camp – Taylor intercepted his first two NFL passes and had his first career sack, forced his first fumble and defended 14 passes, posted six tackles for loss and totaled 75 tackles while playing all 17 games, with 13 starts.

But Taylor, a notoriously tough self-evaluator, often took more note of the lows than the highs. And he'll have a push for reps this season from rookie Kool-Aid McKinstry, who will work in the slot and at outside corner in training camp.

"It's different. You're down there, you've got linemen pulling at you, you're hitting gaps downhill, (dealing with) running backs," Woods said. "There's a physical aspect in terms of the tackling, where you have to play like a linebacker, but you still have to be able to cover slot receivers.

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"It was a learning experience for him. He'd never played in there. It's a whole different world when you go inside, because of the coverage aspect and playing the run game. So I think he has learned a lot, just from sitting down watching tape and just from the strides that he's made and the improvements he's made from OTAs."

The improvement has been noticeable.

"Just his understanding of what we're asking him to do right now is 10 times, 20 times more than what it was at this point last year," Allen said. "And so, the floor that we're starting at is much higher than where we started at last year.

"Really, basically, our floor this year is what our ceiling was last year, and we're hoping to build on that."

His teammates are counting on it.

"Alontae has shown a lot of great things, and I know he's a guy that wants to get better, better than what he put on tape last year," safety Tyrann Mathieu said. "We look forward to Alontae stepping up and being what we want him to be."

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