Who is the Saints' number one cornerback?
I asked myself this question recently and I wasn't too sure what the answer was. Well, in the face of my slight bewilderment, I decided to do a bit of research to come to a conclusion. Coming into the 2015 NFL season, the answer to that question would have been automatic: Keenan Lewis, of course! Fast forward to the present time and a forgettable season later, things aren't so clear anymore. Why is that?
Keenan Lewis came to the Saints as a free agent in 2013, straight from the vaunted Pittsburgh Steelers defensive system of Dick Lebeau. Lewis wasn't a superstar in Pittsburgh, but his first season in New Orleans gave everyone hope that he might just become one. In 2013, Lewis started all 16 regular season games with New Orleans as well as the two postseason games that year. The native of the Westbank tallied 39 solo and eight assisted tackles for a total of 47 tackles. Lewis also had nine passes defended and four interceptions.
In 2014, Lewis' second season with the Saints, the cornerback could not duplicate his eye-opening success of the previous year, but still produced at a fairly high level: Lewis once again started all 16 regular season games, however he saw is total tackles number drop from 47 to 40 and the interceptions number slashed in half, from four to two. Overall, 2014 was not a terrible year for Lewis, although as a unit the Saints' defense was pretty horrendous.
Then came 2015: Lewis suffered from all sorts of ailments. A bum knee and the Saints' patented sports hernia. A shell of himself, the Saints' cornerback played in only six games, recorded a grand total of six tackles and nothing else.
It would be easy to blame Lewis' poor 2015 season solely on his injuries, but if we paid enough attention, the decline had already started two seasons ago. Despite playing in all 16 games in 2014, Lewis already had knee issues that kept him from playing in sizable chunks of games. Lewis also turns 30 in May and it is fairly safe to assume that his best NFL days are behind him.
But here's the good news: while Keenan Lewis was clearly showing signs of his football mortality, a future star was born in the Saints' secondary: Delvin Breaux, a 26-year old player eerily hailing from New Orleans as well took his place. And barring injuries, Breaux isn't about to relinquish the number one cornerback spot with the Saints anytime soon.
Breaux's first season with New Orleans in 2015 is uncannily similar to Lewis' first in 2013. Last season Breaux played and started in all 16 games with the Saints, recorded 45 total tackles (37 solo), 19 passes defended and three interceptions. Breaux was ranked by Pro Football Focus as the eighth-best cornerback in the NFL in 2015 with an 86.0 grade, ahead of Super Bowl champion cornerbacks Chris Harris Jr. (9th, 84.6) and Aqib Talib (28th, 79.8).
So here we arrive to the answer, mine at the very least: Delvin Breaux is the undisputed number one cornerback for the New Orleans Saints going forward. What becomes most interesting to figure out now is: who is number two? Brandon Browner was (thankfully) shown the door a few days ago after he threatened to shatter the universal record for on-field penalties in 2015. Can Lewis come back to his playing level of 2013 or even 2014? If not, should the Saints even keep him? For perspective, Lewis' cap hit in 2016 is $6,350,000, the fourth highest on the team behind Brees, Jordan and Byrd. Delvin Breaux's on the other hand is a mere $529,000. Of course, releasing Lewis would cost the team $7,200,000 in dead money and finding a trade partner for the aging cornerback seems highly unlikely.
The case of Keenan Lewis is an interesting one. Brandon Browner was released with a $6.3M salary cap hit, and the Saints knew they were going to be on the hook for $5,35M in dead money. If New Orleans feels that Lewis isn't going to be the player he once was, could they go the same route? Cornerback Damian Swann excelled in the nickel last year until concussions derailed his rookie season. P.J. Williams, a draft pick from last year out of Florida State will come off of IR and have a chance to show defensive coordinator Dennis Allen that he belongs on the roster. Of course, there is always free agency and the draft. Despite being in "salary cap hell" for the better part of the past three seasons, Mickey Loomis has shown that he'll find a dollar to spend to acquire free agents. The moves haven't always been successful, but you better believe that if the Saints can add a veteran cornerback to the roster this offseason they will.
Personally, I would love nothing more than seeing Keenan Lewis get back to his 2013 self. I just don't think it is going to happen, so how should the Saints deal with it? Tell me what you think!