The New Orleans Saints pass defense has consistently made ordinary quarterbacks look like potential Hall of Famers over four of the last five seasons. Part of the reason for this has been the poor play of the New Orleans safeties. Too often, Saints fans watched their team force the opposing offense into a third and long situation, then watched in horror as the opposition converted time and time again.
Bad angles, miscommunication, and poor tackling from the last line of defense equalled a recipe for disaster for the Saints defense. Last year's rash of injuries that crippled the Saints defense did not leave the safety position unscathed. For the most part, however, the teams top three safeties were available for the majority of the season. (safety Kenny Vaccaro was suspended for the final four games)
Today, we will finish out our free agency preview by profiling the Saints safety position. We will look over the prominent players under contract, the team's free agents as well as potential targets in free agency, and how highly New Orleans should prioritize the position this offseason.
Safeties Under Contract
Kenny Vaccaro (age 25)
Vaccaro arguably had perhaps his best year as pro. The former first-round draft choice from Texas has developed into a team leader, and may very well be progressing into one of the better strong safeties in the league. He has always been a sure tackler and a solid "in the box" player. Where Vaccaro looked vastly improved in 2016 was his pass coverage down the field. Definitely worth keeping an eye on here is the fact that Vaccaro could be an unrestricted free agent following the 2017 season.
Vonn Bell (age 22)
Bell was a 2nd Round pick from Ohio State for the Saints in 2016. He started 13 games, finished second on the team in tackles, and often showed why the team thought so highly of him coming into the draft. Bell did have some struggles with communication between his cornerbacks; often resulting in big plays down the field. He needs to show more of the playmaking abilities he displayed at Ohio State, but his future seems bright in New Orleans.
Jairus Byrd (age 30)
Byrd is perhaps the worst free agent signing in New Orleans Saints history. Consistently poor effort, awful tackling, and abysmal fundamentals that would cause ulcers on a Pop Warner coach have been the story of Byrd's 3-year Saint career. To be fair, the grotesquely overpaid free agent acquisition from Buffalo did play better towards the end of last season. Saints coaches gave the starting free safety position to rookie Vonn Bell, but Byrd still appeared in all 16 games for the first time since the 2012 season. New Orleans would be wise to finally cut ties with this free agent flop; regardless of the "dead money" that would result.
Erik Harris (age 26)
Harris was a free agent signing from the Canadian Football League prior to the 2016 minicamp. Unfortunately, the Saints had little opportunity to find out if they'd caught Canadian lightning in a bottle for a second time, as they had with Delvin Breaux the year before. Harris appeared in only four games before injury ended his 2016 season. Harris will probably have a good chance to earn a roster spot in training camp, but isn't necessarily starter material.
Free Agent Safeties
Roman Harper (age 34)
Harper has given his best years to the Saints organization. His return to the team following a brief stint in Carolina was heartwarming, if not effective. The 10-year veteran may retire this offseason, but almost certainly will not be retained by the team.
Jamarca Sanford (age 31)
Sanford missed 2016 due to injury, but his play with the Saints in 2015 was uneven, at best. He does bring some athleticism to the safety position, but is unlikely to be back in New Orleans.
Shiloh Keo (age 29)
Keo was signed at mid-season by the Saints following a 2-year stay in Denver. The 5-year veteran is a good special teams player, but somewhat of a liability in coverage. If he is to return to New Orleans, it will most likely be as a special teams player and to provide depth.
Free Agent Possibilities
Tony Jefferson (age 25, Cardinals)
Jefferson has been a versatile defensive back in Arizona, and seems to be coming into his prime. He is likely to command a salary in the neighborhood of over $6 million per year. As a player similar to Kenny Vaccaro in his style of play, a New Orleans commitment to Jefferson could mean that the Saints may not plan on retaining Vaccaro following 2017.
D.J. Swearinger (age 25, Cardinals)
Swearinger is just one of a number of players on a talented Arizona defense with expiring contracts. He is an athletic player, both in coverage and as a blitzer. A possible Buyer Beware warning—Was Swearinger the beneficiary of the many playmakers around him in both Arizona prior to that in and Houston? Or will he prove to be a playmaking safety when not surrounded with as much talent?
T.J. McDonald (age 26, Rams)
McDonald has been a tough and solid player for the Rams for four seasons. New Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips will likely lobby hard to keep McDonald and cornerback Trumaine Johnson in Los Angeles uniforms to keep his talented young nucleus intact.
Jonathan Cyprien (age 26, Jaguars)
Cyprien has been an iron man starter for Jacksonville over his four-year career. A solid pass defender, he wouldn't necessarily command a high salary on the open market.
Bradley McDougald (age 26, Buccaneers)
McDougald is a familiar foe to Drew Brees and the Saints offense, having roamed Tampa's secondary for the previous four seasons. He has typically played well against the other NFC South offenses that the Saints will face.
Matt Elam (age 25, Ravens)
Elam has never even come close to the expectations of him when Baltimore selected him with the 32nd overall selection of the 2013 draft. Even on a Ravens defense that has struggled at times against the pass, Elam did not start a single game in 2016, and has only one career interception.
Eric Berry (age 28, Chiefs)
This is not at all an indictment of Berry's play. He continues to be one of the better safeties in the NFL, and his recovery from cancer treatments has been remarkable. If Kansas City allows Berry to reach the open market, the 7th year pro will likely seek a contract of $9-10 million per year. Berry is not quite the difference maker he was earlier in his career. New Orleans needs playmakers at every level of their defense, and are just now beginning to climb out of salary cap hell from high priced acquisitions that didn't pan out.
Dynamic safeties do not often reach free agency in the NFL. New Orleans needs Kenny Vaccaro and Vonn Bell to progress into playmakers, and develop another young safety to go along with them. The entire Saints defense had only nine interceptions in 2016, with four from the safety position. The patchwork secondary gave up too many big plays, but made even fewer plays.
The cornerback spot is expected to be improved, with the return of injured players and expected additions. The Saints safeties simply must start making plays. Vaccaro and Bell are both young, high draft choices that Saints coaches are counting on to play big. There are a couple of safeties in the upcoming draft that will go high, but given the other needs that the Saints need to address, that is unlikely.
Whether or not New Orleans elects to part ways with Jairus Byrd will probably dictate if the Saints make any significant moves here. If Byrd remains with the team, then New Orleans will only look for second tier-type signings and/or lower draft choices to boost depth. If the Saints chose to move on from Byrd, then they would likely look into a few of the above options to go along with starters Vaccaro and Bell for their 3-safety sets.
OFFSEASON PRIORITY: Mid-level
Next, we will compile a wish list as the Saints prepare for free agency.