Now that Jairus Byrd is on the outs, the Saints have another hole to fill at defensive back. The roster looks thinner at safety than it did last summer - starters Kenny Vaccaro and Vonn Bell are locked in, but behind them just Erik Harris (who is recovering from a torn ACL) is signed on for 2017. Backups Roman Harper and Chris Banjo are pending free agents.
At first glance, Arizona Cardinals safety Tony Jefferson looks like the safety to target in free agency. The do-it-all defensive back has looked great lining up in the box, at the line of scrimmage, and deep downfield in zone coverage. But if you look a bit deeper, Jefferson has the same general skills set as Vaccaro and Bell. Pursuing him would be redundant and leave the Saints without a true deep-field defender.
New England Patriots safety Duron Harmon can be the guy to plug that hole. Though he has been just a part-time player for New England, seeing about half of their defensive snaps in each of the last two years as the centerfield safety in big nickel packages, Harmon has consistently played at a high level. He hasn’t started full-time for lack of ability so much as the quality of guys ahead of him. Devin McCourty is one of the NFL’s most-talented defensive backs, and Patrick Chung has shown to be a great fit in Bill Belichick’s defense playing closer to the line of scrimmage.
When lining up in deep thirds and two-high safety looks, Harmon has shown a knack for taking good angles towards the ball-carrier and picking up receivers as they move through his zone. Nathan Jahnke of Pro Football Focus credited Harmon with highly-efficient pass coverage production in the 2015 season, noting:
In the fourth quarter against Miami, Duron Harmon had an interception to stop any chance of a Dolphins’ comeback. His hit on the receiver prevented another catch, and he had close coverage on another play, leading to his sixth straight game without a catch allowed. Over the last two seasons on 423 coverage snaps, he has been thrown at five times, has allowed one catch for 9 yards, has five interceptions, and one pass defense. That’s a yards per coverage snap of 0.02, and an NFL passer rating allowed of 0.
If you go to look at Harmon’s stat line, you won’t be impressed. He has logged just 91 tackles in four years (22 of them assists), though his pass defense stats looks better with 20 breakups (7 of them interceptions). But relative to his snap counts, that’s a decent rate of production. Considering how far off the ball Harmon routinely plays and the quality of his teammates, it’s not surprising that he doesn’t rack up tackles like Byrd did in New Orleans.
The bottom line is that Harmon is a very low-risk signing. He’s got experience playing well in the kind of defense the Saints have run under Dennis Allen, shouldn’t cost much (New England-area radio host Mike Giardi reported that Harmon’s market will range between $5- and $6-million per year), and is known as a quiet, steadying leader in the Patriots’ locker room. He also plays a third of New England’s special teams snaps.
Belichick would like Harmon to return in his role and at the right price, but the Saints could possibly meet that price and offer Harmon a more prominent starting job in Byrd’s absence. Harmon feels like a smart signing that could really help the Saints’ defense take a big step forward. Teams can safely negotiate contracts with free agents now, but nothing can be signed until 3:00 PM CST this Thursday, March 9th.