When it comes to league wide respect, Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper would fit in well with the late Rodney Dangerfield. Of course, they haven't done themselves any favors in earning that respect. While looking around the interwebs at how various websites rank our two starters, some of the rankings are pretty eye opening.
The Bleacher Report's Matt Miller took the time to rank his top 75 safeties in the NFL for 2013. Not top 30. Not top 50. TOP 75! (Check it out here) Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper DID NOT EVEN MAKE THE LIST! He is basically saying that we would be better off with guys like Eric Hagg, Ricardo Silva, Matt Giordano, and Craig Dahl. Now, if you're looking for someone to be critical of our safety play for the past season or so, then I'm your guy. But to say that Jenkins and Harper are not among the top 75 safeties in football is just plain ignorance. I mean, 2012 was pretty bad, but c'mon man!
The New Orleans Saint safeties are hoping to dance to a different tune in 2013. (Aretha Franklin anyone?) With Rob Ryan's new defensive philosophy, this safety dance may be more like a square dance, where multiple players will have an effect on the outcome. To start the 2012 season, Ryan had five cornerbacks and five safeties. I assume we will see this again in 2013, which means the 5th safety spot will be a very interesting battle between three capable participants.
PRESEASON LOCKS AT THE SAFETY POSITION:
Of all the safeties on the Saints roster, Malcolm Jenkins may be the hardest one to figure out. As the top cornerback available in the 2009 draft and part of a defense that sees a lot of balls thrown their way, you would think that Jenkins would be ranked among the top 10-15 safeties in the league in pass deflections. He was tied for 22nd with 7, along with teammate Isa Abdul-Quddus and a few others (like Usama Young for example). Granted, he did miss four games, but considering the volume of passes that he sees and the fact that 3 of those 7 deflections were in one game, its shocking that the former Ohio State All-American cornerback isn't involved in breaking up more pass plays.
Another shocking stat is brought to us by Pro Football Focus, who after 8 weeks (7 Saints games) in 2012, evaluated tackle efficiency among safeties (link here). Among the players who qualified for this stat, Jenkins was 60th out of 67 safeties. Now I don't believe that this particular stat says it all, but it was pretty shocking to see how many tackles he missed in 7 games (13). When you see the big hits and look on paper and see 94 tackles in 12 games, it's easy to praise the man for being a good tackler. However, his number of missed tackles MUST come down in 2013.
While the Saints allowed 1st downs and TDs at an unacceptable rate in 2012, Jenkins did not do much to help the cause. On a per coverage snap basis, Jenkins allowed a first down or TD 4.29% of the time, which was 9th worst among qualifying safeties. As I mentioned before, the corners and safeties did not do each other any favors in 2012 and its time for a talented veteran like Jenkins to step his game up.
What to watch: Jenkins is far too talented to have a repeat of his disappointing 2012 season. I believe that Ryan knows this and will have this guy all over the field. I'm anxious to see if he actually lines up in the "nickel" position against teams like the Falcons, who have a big back in Steven Jackson and solid route runners in Julio Jones, Roddy White, and Harry Douglas. I do believe that he is a good tackler and may benefit in playing various roles on defense. If he fails to improve, he may see less time on the field and we could see some of the younger guys get more snaps.
When it comes to criticism, only Roman Harper can compete with Patrick Robinson for most ridiculed Saint. It still blows my mind that Sam Bradford, who runs about a 4.9 in the 40, caught this guy preventing him from what seemed to be an easy touchdown (remember this? Yuck!). Harper did manage to have a career high in tackles and pass deflections while adding two interceptions (had one in his previous four seasons). The Steve Spagnuolo defense did nothing for one of Harper's strengths: the safety blitz. After recording a career high 7.5 sacks in 2011, he had ZERO in 2012, which was only the second time in his 7 year career that he was held without a sack for a season.
Like Jenkins, Harper also was part of the beating in 2012. His 28 first downs allowed was by far the worst allowed by a safety and was 4th worst in 1st downs and TDs allowed per coverage snap (5.27%). I don't think anyone is ready to claim that Harper is great in pass defense, so it is possible that he may become more of a situation type player in Ryan's system.
What to watch: Of the 34 sacks that Rob Ryan's Dallas defense had last season, guess how many were by cornerbacks and safeties? ZERO. While that may be a discouraging stat for us to see, Dallas did not have a safety that was a proven threat in rush situation and really didn't need one. Demarcus Ware will not be wearing a Saints jersey, so look for Ryan to see what he can get out of Harper applying pressure on the QB and how often he will be in the box in rushing situations. It will be interesting to see how Harper may be rotated in certain game situations with other talented safeties on the roster.
On Matt Miller's crazy top 75 safeties of 2013 list, guess who was ranked #43? That's right, Miller already believes that Isa Abdul-Quddus is our best safety. Considering that he may be the future of this Saints defense, he may eventually end up being right about that one.
In the final four weeks of the 2012 season, IAQ racked up 21 total tackles, 2 interceptions, and 5 pass deflections. Sure, this is a small sample size, but this is where he had his opportunity to start at free safety in place of an injured Malcolm Jenkins. As the only undrafted free agent to make the opening day roster in 2011, Isa has done an admirable job on special teams and looks to increase his role on the defense in 2013. If he continues to play like he did to finish the 2012 season, the Saints may not be able to ignore what IAQ could bring to the starting defense.
What to watch: I'm curious to see how the Saints use Abdul-Quddus in 2013. Will they bring him along slowly or will he earn a starting spot right out of the gate? I believe that his performance in camp and in the preseason will say a lot in answering that question. He seems like he could be that hidden gem on defense and we all know the Saints could use a few of those, after being spoiled by all of the UDFAs and low draft picks that have produced on offense.
I can't begin to tell you how excited I am about this guy. It seems like every great 3-4 defense has a big time safety. I really wanted the Saints to draft this guy because in the past 10 years, the first safety drafted is a pretty safe bet to be a pretty damn good safety for years to come. (My old Fanpost proves that here) He has the speed, reaction time, and overall ability to play all over the field. The question is, how will he fit in to this defense in 2013?
What to watch: I do not expect Vaccaro to start in week one, but it would be awesome if he did. That would say a lot about his preparation and ability to learn what seems to be a pretty complex defense. I do expect for him to eventually see plenty of playing time as the season rolls on, but who will be the player who will take a seat for the talented Vaccaro to show us what he can do?
THE THREE WAY BATTLE FOR THE 5TH SAFETY SPOT:
THE INCUMBENT: THE OTHER BUSH. Bounced from team to team, Rafael Bush found a home in New Orleans as a special teams player. He led the Saints special teams in total tackles and filled in admirably as a reserve safety. In 2013, the competition will be a little tougher with a veteran gunning for his spot.
What to watch: Rafael Bush has his hands full this preseason. He will need to prove that he his an asset to the special teams unit and continue to be a solid backup. He was basically snagged after the final cuts were made in 2012 and stuck with the Saints. This time, he will have to earn his spot.
THE VETERAN. The 30 year old Leonhard has the perfect resume for a roster spot. He's a solid special teams player and has had success on the defensive side of the football. While injuries have been an issue for him and he is undersized, Leonhard is very familiar with the 3-4 defense and has been an opportunistic player. He has at least an interception in six straight seasons and has proven that he can start in the NFL if he needs to. He has returned kicks, so he could add depth or options there as well.
What to watch: For the first time in four seasons, Jim Leonhard was not a starter in 2012. His stock seems to be falling, so we shall see if he has enough left in the tank to break through and take this roster spot from last year's leading tackler on special teams. Will his knowledge of the 3-4 defense (he was a starter in Rex Ryan's defense for 3 years) be enough to earn him a spot on this roster?
THE OUTSIDE SHOT. While the Louisiana native seems more likely to be a potential practice squad player in 2013, we have seen players with a lot of potential break through and become a surprise add to the roster. Jerico Nelson was an explosive player at Arkansas. While that means nothing in the pro game, Nelson will get what may be his last shot to make this roster. He needs to have a solid preseason or else the Saints may not even give him a practice squad spot, considering all of the young talent in camp this season.
What to watch: Nelson will have to make a HUGE impact in camp and in preseason. It seems unlikely, but is possible considering how athletic he is. His best chance is to shine on special teams.
If the Saints coaching staff is open minded about the safety position for the 2013 season, I would say that there is currently no lock at starter for either safety spot. I can only hope that the best man will definitely get the job. I'm going into this season open minded. Besides, there will be a full offseason of activities, there is no stupid scandal, and the head coach is back. Clean slate.
My Prediction on Who Will Make the Roster:
Jim Leonhard (if healthy)
So what do you think? Is it time for a change at safety right off the bat? Do you start IAQ or Vaccaro week one against the Falcons? Am I nuts for keeping Leonhard over Bush? Let's hear it!
* Next up, we discuss the interesting battle of the defensive line.