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The two starting Safeties for the New Orleans Saints in 2016 were the Byrd-Man Bust, Jairus Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro. Ole Grey Beard, Roman Harper and Vonn Bell, a rookie drafted out of Ohio State in the 2nd Round of the 2016 NFL Draft were used in three Safety sets and to spell the two starters throughout the game.
Jairus Byrd had another lackluster year in 2016, but seemed to be turning a corner near the end of the season (his first full year under new Defensive Coordinator Dennis Allen) with his two interceptions of the year coming in Week 16 versus Tampa Bay. Even still, Byrd was released for cap relief early in the offseason and has yet to latch on with a new team.
Kenny Vaccaro continued his physical play, creating four turnovers (two fumbles and two interceptions) on the year and finishing second on the team in solo tackles per game. Playing in only 11 games due to a late-season suspension, Vaccaro also tacked on a sack and 5 passes defended. Overall, it was a solid year for the young Safety, and he looks to be a prime candidate for an upcoming contract extension.
Roman Harper started in only four games for games for the Saints in 2016 as wear and tear long with Father Time finally seemed to catch up to the long-time Saint (and brief Panther). Vonn Bell, on the other hand, saw his usage gradually increase throughout the year and will be expected to be the primary third safety in 2017 after the release of Jairus Byrd.
In free agency, the Saints brought back a former New Orleans Saints Safety for the second year in a row, this time bringing back Rafael Bush, who played the 2016 season with the Detroit Lions, playing in 4 games as a rotational Safety and Special Teamer. In the 2017 NFL Draft, the Saints again drafted a Safety in the 2nd Round for the second year in a row, adding Marcus Williams out of Utah.
So here’s why they’re better in 2017:
When the Saints brought in Jairus Byrd on a big-money contract in the 2014 offseason, they were expecting him to be a ball-hawking Centerfielder who could create turnovers and get the ball back to into the hands of Drew Brees and the Saints offense. They were hoping to get the player who led the league in interceptions (with 9) in 2009, or at least consistent play similar to his last year in Buffalo when he finished with 4 picks on the year. Age, injuries, and constantly changing Defensive Coordinators led Byrd to only picking up three passes in his entire three-year tenure with the Saints - one less than the total he amassed in his final year with Buffalo alone. Needless to say, Byrd was far from the turnover machine the Saints were hoping for.
Lucky for New Orleans, 2017 rookie Marcus Williams profiles to be exactly that guy they were hoping to get out of Jairus Byrd. Williams is the ball-hawking Free Safety the Saints have long needed, and early reports are that he is already impressing at training camp.
Add in a veteran presence and quality depth piece in Rafael Bush, a suspension-less year from Kenny Vaccaro, and continued improvement from Vonn Bell, and the Saints starters at Safety are looking like a solid core of the Saints defense.