At this time last year, former Colorado defensive back Ken Crawley was an undrafted college free agent preparing for his first NFL minicamp with the New Orleans Saints. Competition for playing time would be fierce, not to mention the usual uphill struggles that accompany any undrafted free agent in making a roster. After all, the Saints would-be returning 2015 budding star Delvin Breaux, second-year players P.J. Williams and Damian Swann, veteran Keenan Lewis rehabbing from injury, and fellow UDFA's De'Vante Harris and Jimmy Pruitt at the position.
Crawley entered the league with a number of physical tools that intrigued the New Orleans defensive coaches, but also with a few noticeable red flags. He's a tall (6-foot-1) corner with very good athletic ability, fluid movement in coverage, and long arms to disrupt the receivers he was assigned to cover. Crawley also gave up an alarming number of touchdowns in college, 19 during his career, and struggled with pass interference penalties.
When training camp began last summer, Crawley impressed both Saints coaches and fans alike during his one-on-one battles against accomplished receivers Brandin Cooks, Willie Snead and top rookie Michael Thomas. His acrobatic pass break-ups of throws from future Hall of Famer Drew Brees, along with solid play once the preseason games began vaulted him up the depth chart rapidly. The uneven play and concussion issues of Swann, and the Saints release of Lewis almost assured Crawley of a spot on the opening day roster by Week 3 of the preseason.
The ideal scenario for Crawley in his rookie season was likely to play him in certain nickel spots or situational pass coverage roles. As many of us are aware, however, the 2016 Saints defensive back unit more closely resembled a M.A.S.H. unit, due to the number of injuries suffered. This forced New Orleans to thrust the rookie Crawley into a prominent role. He played in 15 games as a rookie, starting five, but played in nearly 48 percent of the Saints defensive snaps.
For the 2016 season, Crawley was credited with 40 tackles, 8 passes defensed, 1 fumble forced and 1 fumble recovered. He did play well against some of the better receivers on the New Orleans schedule. Like most rookies at the position, he struggled with consistency; opposing quarterbacks had a rating of over 100 against him. Although he did not notch an interception during the season, Crawley did answer one concern against him coming out of college, with only two accepted penalties against him during the year.
Ken Crawley is among a handful of players expected to be in a heated and entertaining battle for a roster spot in the Saints defensive backfield. Breaux is expected to return to form after an injury-plagued year, and highly touted No. 1 draft choice Marshon Lattimore will likely be the starters. Among Crawley's other competition will be Williams and Swann returning from injury, veteran 2016 free agent addition Sterling Moore who played well at times last year, fellow 2016 UDFA Harris, and exciting 2017 UDFA Arthur Maulet. Crawley's progression showed as the season went along in 2016. He showed more confidence in coverage, and even helped Moore alleviate the loss of Breaux as the Saints defense played some of it's most effective football over the last half of the season.
Ken Crawley will have to continue his development, along with eliminating the lapses that plagued his rookie season, to be in the mix for a cornerback job on the New Orleans Saints. He's already beaten the odds as an undrafted rookie playing such a large role in his first year. It may not be wise to bet against him.