The New Orleans Saints had only 3 cornerbacks voted to the Pro Bowl in their first 51 years of football, Dave Whitsell (1967), Dave Waymer (1987), and Eric Allen (1995). They have had some other very good cornerbacks throughout team history; Mike McKenzie, Jabari Greer, Toi Cook, Tracy Porter all had fine careers in New Orleans. The team's abysmal pass defense over the last several seasons can be attributed to a number of reasons, not the least of which include poor play at the cornerback position. The Saints were ravaged with injury here a year ago, and forced to play the majority of the season with two journeymen free agents and an undrafted rookie throughout the 2016 season. New Orleans addressed this issue early in the draft, by selecting Marshon Lattimore from Ohio State with the 11th pick of the first round. Today's postseason grades will take a look at how this position influenced the 2017 New Orleans Saints season.
The Saints were thrilled when Marshon Lattimore, a projected top 10 selection, dropped to them at the 11th pick in last spring's draft. It didn't take long for Lattimore to establish himself as a shutdown corner, and one of the top young defensive stars in the league. He led the team with 5 interceptions and passes defensed, excelling in tight man to man coverage. Lattimore was able to use a rare combination of elite atheticism and physicality to contain some of the best wideouts in the league. He was the first New Orleans cornerback since 1995 (Eric Allen) to be voted to the Pro Bowl, and easily won NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.
Ken Crawley entered his second season as a pro on the inactive list for the first two games of the season, both Saint losses. He was pressed into action as an undrafted free agent rookie in 2016, showing potential but struggling with consistency and penalties even into the 2017 preseason. The Saints pass defense got off to a horrendous start, giving up nearly 800 yards passing in their first two losses to Minnesota and New England. Once Crawley was inserted into the lineup in week 3, the New Orleans pass defense surrendered an average of just 201 yards through the air over the rest of the regular season. Crawley is a physical player that plays his best against bigger receivers. He had just 1 interception, but was second on the team in passes defensed.
P.J. Williams entered his 3rd season as a pro with just six quarters of regular season experience, after injuries ended his first two years. He appeared in all 16 games in 2017, starting 6, and was a good run defender while showing solid athleticism in coverage. The inexperienced Williams did struggle with consistency in his first full season, but did show the abilities of a capable NFL cornerback, and intercepted 2 passes on the year.
The Saints started the season with De'Vante Harris as a starter at cornerback, and the results were disasterous. New Orleans brought back Sterling Moore for depth, while Justin Hardee and Arthur Maulet provided outstanding play on special teams, but the team was still relatively thin at the position, and were exposed when Lattimore missed some time at mid-season with injury. The Saints hope for a return to health of Delvin Breaux, who played well in 2015, before a broken leg limited him in 2016 and ended his 2017 in preseason. Breaux is a restricted free agent entering this offseason, and there are major questions as to his return, or his effectiveness once he does.
Lattimore is a true difference maker defensively, and has the look of an All-Pro regular, and Crawley held up very well despite being tested often, giving the Saints a cornerback duo as good as any in the league. Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen often used his talented cornerbacks in tight, aggressive man to man coverage, and their ability to flourish in that role helped the other New Orleans defenders to make plays in other capacities. The Saints held some of the best NFL wideouts in check, holding players like Mike Evans (first Tampa Bay game), Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson, and Devante Adams to no more than 2 receptions in their meetings this year. Those players along with Jarvis Landry, Julio Jones, and Desean Jackson were all held without a touchdown catch against the much improved New Orleans defense. The team will likely add another cover man through the draft or free agency, but this young group of players made arguably the biggest improvement of any position unit on the 2017 New Orleans Saints.
CORNERBACK GRADE= A
How would you grade the Saints cornerbacks in 2017?
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