FIVE. That's how many starting cornerbacks for the New Orleans Saints that missed all, or a major portion of the 2016 season. Young and promising players P.J. Williams and Damian Swann saw 6 quarters of regular season action between them (all by Williams). Budding shutdown corner Delvin Breaux broke his leg in the season's first game, then suffered another injury shortly after returning at mid-season that ended his year. Veterans Keenan Lewis and Kyle Wilson never even made it to the team's training camp. Wilson being placed on injured reserve last summer following a torn labrum suffered earlier in the offseason, and Lewis being released by the Saints because of a deteriorating hip condition.
The injuries forced the Saints to play the majority of the 2016 season at one of the most vital positions with undrafted rookie free agents and two journeymen free agents signed off the street after the start of the regular season, Sterling Moore and B.W. Webb. The result was predictable, even though the defensive backs had their moments, the Saints defense finished 31st in points allowed, and dead last in passing yardage.
Canal Street Chronicles finishes our offensive and defensive positional outlooks today by looking at the position that has caused the most debate among Saints fans this offseason.
(*) denotes rookie
Current Camp Roster: Delvin Breaux, Marshon Lattimore*, P.J. Williams, Ken Crawley, Sterling Moore, De'Vante Harris, Arthur Maulet*, Damian Swann, DeJuan Butler, Taveze Calhoun
Offseason Losses: B.W. Webb (free agent)
Offseason Additions: Marshon Lattimore (draft)
The Saints benefited from some good fortune when Lattimore, a projected top 7 pick by many, slipped to the 11th spot of the 1st round. He has a good chance to be a game one starter in this rebuilding defense. Although rookie cornerbacks are rarely successful in their first seasons, Lattimore has all the physical tools to be a lockdown cornerback in the NFL. He has excellent speed (4.36 40-time), to go along with an terrific vertical leap and quick reaction time to receiver movements.
The knock on Lattimore is that he was a starter for only one full season at Ohio State, but he was rarely tested due to his blanket coverage skills and playmaking ability. He also had some hamstring issues in college, which has caused him to sit out of a couple practices in camp thus far. Early practices have seen him mix moments of brilliance against the Saints talented receiving corps, with frustrating lapses in coverage. Such is life for a rookie cornerback in the NFL, and we can likely expect to see the same in year one of Lattimore's development.
Delvin Breaux looked in 2015 like he was ready to step into the conversation of top NFL corners. After leading the Saints in interceptions (3) and passes defensed (19) while often taking on the opponent's top wideout in '15, Breaux was limited to only 6 games of action last season. Breaux has had his struggles early in camp so far, and has even missed some practice time due to a leg contusion. Still the favorite to be the Saints top cornerback on opening day, Breaux's current struggles are a concern to some that expected him to be the leader of this young squad. Given his personal history, it would be unwise to bet against Delvin Breaux. He is a warrior, with the coverage ability of a top level cornerback.
P.J. Williams opened the regular season as the starter opposite Breaux. After missing his entire rookie season the year before, Williams had a solid preseason that showed the promise he had when drafted out of Florida State. Unfortunately, Williams suffered a concussion and neck injury that ended his season in a frightening collision in the 2nd quarter of a Week 2 game against the Giants. Williams is a physical corner that is smooth enough athletically to match up well with most receivers in man coverage. Some still project a move to safety for him at some point in his career, an added versatility to watch as the Saints make player cutdowns later this summer.
Damian Swann came to the the Saints as a rookie alongside Breaux and Williams in 2015. He showed promise as a defender during his rookie year, starting a handful of games and exhibiting himself well before concussion issues cut his year short. Swann struggled mightily in preseason last year, and some believed that his roster spot was in jeopardy, before the team placed him on IR after another concussion. The multiple concussions over such a short period of time have put Swann's NFL future in doubt. With the added talent this offseason, Swann will need a strong performance to make this team.
Ken Crawley made the Saints roster last season as an undrafted free agent. He then vaulted up the depth chart due not only to his performance, but of course all the injuries suffered to the other defensive backs. Crawley's performance was uneven at times, but did have some solid moments as well. He's a tall, fluid athlete with long arms and an ability to run stride for stride with most wideouts. Crawley has been the most impressive defensive back thus far early in camp, and has been winning a lot of one on one battles against the Saints top receivers. He looks not only like a roster lock, but also in the early conversation as an opening day starter.
Another undrafted free agent to earn a roster spot in 2016 was De'Vante Harris. Harris earned his way onto the team last season with an outstanding camp and preseason performances early. Once the regular season began, Harris played less snaps due to some coverage lapses and special teams mistakes. A smaller corner, Harris is better in off coverage, relying on anticipation and athletic ability to make a play on the ball in the air. He is standing out once again in these first few weeks of camp, hoping to capitalize on his opportunities to shine once the preseason games start.
Arthur Maulet was signed as an undrafted free agent immediately following the draft this spring. Maulet, a native of Kenner, LA., starred at the University of Memphis. He is the Saints shortest cornerback, at just shy of 5-foot-10, but challenges bigger opponents due to his explosive leaping ability and aggressive playing style. Ideally suited as a slot corner, Maulet has been a coverage standout both in the team's OTA's and early this training camp as well. Despite his size, he continues to hold up even against the taller receivers on the team. He has progressed from a dark horse candidate to now one of the early favorites to latch on to a roster spot.
Sterling Moore was signed just five days before last season's opener to provide depth. Once the injuries continued to ravage the position, Moore found himself starting 12 games. He matched his career high, and tied for the team lead, with 2 interceptions and 13 passes defensed, along with setting a new career high in tackles. Moore's upside may not be as high as some of the other talent on the roster, but the veteran provides a reliable option to turn to should any of the younger players be slow to develop.
Outlook: Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen has said that he wants to run more man to man and press coverage schemes with the Saints, and thus far in camp we have seen exactly that. This second week of camp in particular, the defensive backs have attributed themselves well; remember that New Orleans has one of the more talented receiving corps in the league. The defensive backs are playing with a swagger and an air of confidence like they have something to prove.
Breaux and Lattimore are the names that most would like to see at the top of the depth chart when the games begin to count. Certainly, each possess the skill level to be potentially a top level cornerback. Crawley, Williams, Harris, and Maulet are all playing terrific football in camp right now. If that continues, there could be a fierce battle for playing time, spots on the depth chart, and even roster spots. Traditionally, the Saints have kept 5 cornerbacks and 5 safeties. Given both the talent level and versatility that a few of these players bring to the defensive backfield, it would not at all be surprising if the coaches elect to keep an extra cornerback from this group.
The current cornerback crew is deeper in talent, athleticism, and coverage ability then the New Orleans Saints have had in quite some time. Growing pains are to be expected from these young players, but if they are able to elevate their game like their talent and aggressiveness suggest, then the Saints could have a very special group of cornerbacks.