The NFL is not a plug and play league.
Whether because of a player’s athletic attributes or his coaches’ imaginations or manners, fit matters. Perhaps no place is that more evident than the Seahawks defensive backfield, where adequate to excellent performers Walter Thurmond and Byron Maxwell struggled to shine elsewhere while the otherwise capable Cary Williams seemed to stumble walking off the ferry in Seattle.
Entering training camp on July 29, a position group known five years running as one of best units in pro football will include two players competing for spots who probably couldn’t get a tryout with the New Orleans Saints right now... And the Saints gave up the most passing touchdowns in league history last season.
We know Brandon Browner’s story, so let's skip him for now.
I’ll admit when I read that Seattle signed Stanley Jean-Baptiste, I mistakenly thought they were bringing back Akeem Auguste, another cornerback with a French name who failed to distinguish himself in the 2014 preseason. Jean-Baptiste is intriguing because of his second round draft pedigree and because of the comparisons he drew in that draft to Richard Sherman, another 6-foot-3 convert from wide receiver with unusual dimensions.
Right now, neither Sheil Kapadia nor Bob Condotta (nor our own Nathan Watt) project Jean-Baptiste on the 53-man roster after final preseason cuts, but we know how Pete Carroll prizes competition and surprises happen every year; Kapadia and Condotta even disagree on who gets the fifth cornerback job, so it’s not as if the spot belongs to anyone just yet. If Jean-Baptiste can make strides in practice he may work himself into the conversation.
So are we overrating him based on a bad draft grade or was he worth it back in 2014?
When Jean-Baptiste was a prospect leaving Nebraska, Danny Kelly praised his coverage and instincts to the ball. However, Bleeding Green Nation’s Mike Kaye found Jean-Baptiste’s tackling deficient. "He seems to still be learning the position and needs a bit of fine tuning," Kaye said. "He is a bit hesitant in run defense which opens him up to taking bad angles in pursuit."
That would make him a particularly sore spot in Seattle’s defense, where corners are counted on to provide outside run support. It’s a faculty that professional guidance might be able to remedy, but Jean-Baptiste didn’t put enough on tape with the Saints to show whether he improved any of his tools. He contributed just eight snaps on defense his rookie year and was left inactive in 11 games even though New Orleans was smote by defensive backfield injuries. The Saints opted to elevate practice squad guys to the lineup rather than play Jean-Baptiste, and the situation was reportedly more disconnect than mentorship.
The former second round investment failed to make it through his second training camp in New Orleans, an indignity even more severe when you remember how poorly the players the Saints did choose to roll with performed. But again, success in the NFL can so often be a product of circumstance, and New Orleans’ struggles to defend the pass surely owe much to the failures of the staff.
As Danny said when the Seahawks re-upped with Jean-Baptiste after the season, it’s possible he "was just not coached up and/or used properly with the Saints." He didn’t catch on with the Lions either during a spell on their practice squad in 2015. Given his size and thickness, (his listed weight of 220 pounds puts him more in the Browner mold than Sherman) maybe the Seahawks are even considering him as insurance for the new hybrid safety role.
For the son of Haitian immigrants out of Miami, this training camp in Seattle might be as big of a learning opportunity as it is a showcase to prove himself. Or it might be his last foothold on a career.
When Jean-Baptiste played high school football in Miami, one of his school’s mottos was "Ad astra per aspera," which translates to either "stars according to raspberries" or "from hardship to the stars." The implied hope of redemption and turning circumstances reminds me of Jean-Baptiste’s namesake, the 1st-century Judean mystic John the Baptist who believed even the most sullied soul could be restored by a dunk in the transformative waters of the river Jordan.
Or maybe the scope of Stanley's challenge was described 17 centuries later by another man named for John the Baptist, Giambattista Vico, one of the first Westerners to imagine that history moves in cycles rather than developing in continuous progression: "To introduce geometrical method into practical life is like trying to go mad with the rules of reason, attempting to proceed by a straight line among the tortuosities of life, as though human affairs were not ruled by capriciousness, temerity, opportunity, and chance."
It’s not known if Vico ever had to take the correct angle to track down a ball carrier from the backside.