The New Orleans Saints have struggled to consistently make plays in their secondary in recent seasons. The team finished lower than 25th in the league five times in the six seasons, in large part due to a lack of playmakers on the back end of their defense. New Orleans used a 1st round draft choice and two 2nd round picks since 2013 in an effort to improve the skill level at the safety position. In today's postseason grades, we take a look at how the Saints last line of defense performed in the 2017 season.
Kenny Vaccaro was the 15th overall selection in the 1st round of the 2013 draft by New Orleans. After making the NFL's All-Rookie team, Vaccaro had been inconsistent over the next few seasons, even being benched at times for poor performance. He rebounded a bit in 2017, and was on his way to his best season statistically, before groin and wrist injuries ended his season after 12 games. Vaccaro had a career high 3 interceptions, a fumble recovery for his first career touchdown, 1.5 sacks, and was among the team leaders in tackles before his injury. Despite his athleticism, Vaccaro does remain a weakness in downfield coverage, but he is a very skilled in the box safety close to the line of scrimmage. He will be a free agent this offseason, and will be one of the bigger decisions facing team management.
Vonn Bell was drafted by New Orleans in the second round of the 2016 draft out of Ohio State. Bell has yet to have an interception in two years with the Saints, after 9 in three years with the Buckeyes, including six during his sophomore campaign. He did improve in man to man coverage during his second year, and has shown himself to be a very good run defender, and leading the 2017 Saints in tackles. Bell has proven to be an excellent blitzer as well, finishing second on the team with 4.5 sacks.
The Saints repeated their strategy of high round safeties by selecting Marcus Williams out of Utah in the second round of the 2017 draft. Williams had 10 interceptions in his final two collegiate seasons, and finished second on the Saints with 4 interceptions this year. He filled a classic centerfielder role for the New Orleans secondary, giving deep coverage help to the Saints cornerbacks and providing a ball hawking presence lacking on their team since 2009. Williams was one of four Saints players to make the 2017 NFL All-Rookie Team, was second on the team in tackles in their wild card round victory over Carolina, and had a key interception to help spark the Saints 2nd half comeback against Minnesota in the divisional round. Unfortunately, he will be remembered for the play he didn't make. A missed tackle on the final play of the divisional round that allowed the Vikings' Stefon Diggs to score a 61-yd. heartbreaking touchdown that ended New Orleans' season.
Chris Banjo and Rafael Bush both provided quality depth during the season. Bush returned to New Orleans after a one year stint with the Detroit Lions to give the young Saints safeties a veteran presence, while Banjo returned after finishing 2016 with the Saints following a four start to his career with Green Bay. Both players provided a big boost to the New Orleans special teams as well, with Banjo playing well enough to be voted as an alternate to the Pro Bowl. Banjo also stepped in on numerous occasions for the New Orleans defense to give them quality play in the defensive backfield, intercepting one pass and recovering a fumble.
Vaccaro's contract situation is one of the team's key issues for the offseason. The Saints are unlikely to pay top end defensive back money to him, and that's likely to be what Vaccaro commands on the market. Should he leave, Bell showed that he is a skilled player filling the role that Vaccaro played in the defense, but the Saints will have to again give a higher priority to the position in the draft or free agency. Williams must bounce back mentally from his playoff mistake, but has shown he is a Pro Bowl calibur talent and a valuable piece to a much stronger Saints secondary.
SAFETY GRADE= B
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