Well, here's hoping that this is a "best for last" scenario. I know you're all sick of my arbitrary and way too early evaluations by now, but we've finally arrived at the part of this team that seems to have a lot of Saints fans the most excited: The secondary. The Saints now have a plethora of DBs on their roster, and it will be a fierce training camp battle to see who not only makes the cut, but also who lines up on the field.
- It's been well established by now that Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan's strength lies in his schemes in coverage and his sub packages, and these are the guys that make that happen. The Saints DBs (well, defense) were (was) 2nd* in the league last season against the pass. During this offseason, however, the next level guys have improved and Ryan has new toys to work with in the New Orleans secondary.
For reference, here are the guys going into the Saints 2014 training camp at corner:
- Keenan Lewis
- Champ Bailey
- Stanley Jean-Baptiste
- Patrick Robinson
- Corey White
- Trevin Wade
- Rod Sweeting
- Derrius Brooks
- AJ Davis
- Bryan Dixon
- Terrence Frederick.
And at safety:
- Jairus Byrd
- Kenny Vaccaro
- Rafael Bush
- Marcus Ball
- Vinnie Sunseri
- Pierre Warren
- Ty Zimmerman
The biggest improvement was, of course, the addition of Jairus Byrd. Byrd is arguably the second best free safety in the NFL (I know many on this blog will argue that he's better than even Earl Thomas), and he allows the Saints to get far more creative with hopefully healthy second year safety Kenny Vaccaro. Vaccaro was superb last year rotating into the slot for man to man coverage. Retaining Rafael Bush allows Ryan to continue to do that and still use the 2-high safety looks that he so loves, while Marcus Ball and Vinnie Sunseri add potential rotational depth (they're two players I look forward to re-exploring after the preseason when I have legitimate film on them, especially because I like Ball's athleticism but cerebrally he leaves much to be desired in preliminary review [and yes, that is an oxymoron]). Byrd also gives the Saints much needed help in the turnover department, an area in which they struggled last season. The defense was superb in terms of yardage, but the Saints at times struggled in the field position game due to a lack of big play ability from the defense. It's a spoiled thing to say, but if the Saints can create more turnovers next year, their team could be truly unstoppable.
The most intriguing training camp battle will, perhaps, be for the #2 cornerback position. Champ Bailey, Patrick Robinson, Corey White, and Stanley Jean-Baptiste all look to compete for this spot. However, the problem is that none of these names except Champ really stand out. White's stint as a #2 last year didn't go particularly well against Atlanta, Robinson has struggled for his career, and Bailey & Jean-Baptiste are on opposite ends of the age spectrum.
Corner is one of the most difficult transitions to make from college to the pros unless you're an athletic freak, and Jean-Baptiste is not. He's a rangy, lengthy corner that has a lot of fundamental issues which were covered up by his length at the college level. On the flip side, Bailey has certainly lost a step or two. Last season, even when he wasn't hurt he struggled. The only time he looked comfortable was when he was used in the slot against New England in the playoffs last season, and I expect Ryan to use him in that role, if not even lining him up as a safety from time to time.
This opinion will inevitably be unpopular, but Robinson is my frontrunner for #2 corner going into training camp. Obviously a lot can change from now until September, but Robinson is young, he's undeniably athletic, and this is likely a make or break year for him. He was drafted in the 1st round in 2010, and this could well be his last shot to prove that he deserves to be on this Saints team going forward. The only major concern at this point is that he looked lost in Spagnuolo's more basic schemes and the injury he sustained in 2013 is difficult for a corner to come back from 100%, but it may have been a blessing in disguise. Being injured allowed him to study Ryan's defense for a year, and I haven't given up on his talent just yet. He's stronger in zone than he is in man, and he has strong closing speed, two traits which are very important for a Rob Ryan corner.
The good news is that if someone usurps that #2 spot, they'll have earned it. The competition is good. When you're playing across from a potential shutdown guy like Keenan Lewis, too many guys fighting for one spot is a good problem to have. I truly believe that the Saints will benefit from this. And, on top of that, even the guy that doesn't make it to the #2 slot will have a chance to work in the nickel and dime packages that Ryan so loves. The Saints don't need a bunch of elite corners, they need guys that can hold their zones successfully, and they can be a strong unit.
From an overview standpoint, the Saints DBs may look a bit better than they are. Jairus Byrd was the flashy offseason signing, Keenan Lewis should be popping up in more and more discussions about "elite" corners, and Champ Bailey adds a friendly face to the NFL world. Vaccaro could be a rising star, and the Saints front office snatched Rafael Bush from right under the Dirty Birds' noses. There is still a lot of room for improvement, however. Ambiguity at the #2 position and lack of truly viable depth could hurt this team. However, they were part of the 4th overall ranked unit in the league last season for a reason, and in the offseason they only look like they made themselves better.
Overall grade: B+
*Edited from 4th, thanks to Chuck Tabb for