The New Orleans Saints enter their third week of training camp. By this point, the players are typically sick of hitting each other, and are extremely anxious to play against someone in a different color uniform. The tense nature of the practices have been especially evident between the Saints receivers and defensive backs. Almost on a daily basis, skirmishes between players on the two units have forced teammates to step in and break up confrontations.
Canal Street Chronicles continues our look at the New Orleans position groups, and today we focus on a position particularly anxious to prove themselves after a few seasons of struggles.
(*) denotes rookie
Current Camp Roster: Kenny Vaccaro, Marcus Williams*, Vonn Bell, Rafael Bush, Erik Harris, Chris Banjo, Robensen Therezie
Offseason Losses: Jairus Byrd (released)
Offseason Additions: Marcus Williams (draft), Rafael Bush (free agent)
The offseason release of Byrd comes as a welcome relief to some Saints fans that considered him to be one of the worst personnel moves in franchise history. The 27-year-old Vaccaro is the leader of secondary. The former 1st round draft choice is one of the better "in the box" safeties in the league, and is perhaps the best tackler on the New Orleans defense. What stood out last season was Vaccaro's improvement in pass coverage. Although still not a strength of his game, he has improved enough in coverage to not be a liability down the field. Vaccaro is still most effective closer to the line of scrimmage, where the Saints coaches like to use him when they run 3-safety alignments.
New Orleans used a 2nd round pick in 2016 to select Vonn Bell, a playmaking safety from Ohio State. Bell's rookie year came with mixed reviews. He started 13 games, and was a major contributor in all 16, while finishing second on the team in tackles, recording a QB sack and forcing 2 fumbles. The downside was that Bell looked lost in coverage at times, particularly in single high safety sets or responding in coverage down the field. The player drafted for his playmaking ability did not have a single interception, and only had 4 passes defensed credited to him. Bell certainly has the man coverage skills and instincts to match up with most receivers, and observers have pointed out that he looks like a more seasoned pro early in camp.
The Saints added former Utah safety Marcus Williams with their 2nd round pick this past spring. Williams brings a true "centerfielder" mentality to the Saints secondary. Williams plays the role of a single high safety well, with a good ability to diagnose plays and the speed and athletic ability to react. He could be a perfect ballhawk for a Saints secondary in desperate need of one. Williams had 10 interceptions over his final two years at Utah, while the New Orleans secondary had just 7 as an entire unit a year ago. Williams' athleticism and instincts have been on display often early in camp; he has turned heads by making multiple plays against the Saints 1st team offense.
A familiar face returned to The Big Easy this offseason, when New Orleans brought back safety Rafael Bush. Bush played for the Saints from 2012-15, before playing last season for the Detroit Lions. He brings a veteran presence to the defensive backfield, with a hard hitting aggressive attitude. Erik Harris returns from injury in hopes that he will be able to expand on the potential he showed coaches during the 2016 season. The former CFL star did see 4 games of action on special teams, and was heavily involved in coverage packages during the preseason.
Chris Banjo was signed at midseason in 2016 to provide depth at safety and a presence on special teams. The former Green Bay Packer made enough of an impression to be re-signed in the offseason for a shot in the safety rotation. Banjo plays with a kamikaze-like fury that endears him to fans, coaches, and teammates.
Outlook: The top three safety roles seem set, with Vaccaro as the factor closer to the line of scrimmage, Bell seeming more suited towards a coverage role, and Williams slotted into a playmaking position as a traditional free safety. Each player is versatile and athletic enough to be a factor at almost any level of the defense. Whether the Saints elect to keep 4 or 5 safeties will be worth watching, considering the team's current depth at cornerback. Bush, Harris, and Banjo will wage an interesting battle for the remaining spots, with Bush likely having the current edge due to veteran experience and familiarity with the Saints system. Each are capable of playing special teams well, and all three players can make a receiver pay for catching a pass over the middle.
One storyline to keep watch on is the contract status of Kenny Vaccaro. The former 1st round pick is in the last year of his rookie contract, and could be a free agent at season's end. After a strong rookie season, Vaccaro did not progress as some hoped for in 2014 or '15, but had a nice season last year. With young, high draft picks Bell and Williams on board, it will be interesting to see how the team views Vaccaro into it's future plans.
The Saints have only intercepted a total of 30 passes in the last three seasons combined, with a paltry total of 10 coming from the safety position. The New Orleans defense needs more playmakers on every level of it's defense, but the supposed "last line of defense" has been giving up far more big plays than it's made. The Saints have invested two second round picks and a first rounder into this position, and they must be difference makers for this defense to have any success in 2017.