Ever since the Saints were unable to convert the 3rd and 1 that preceded the Minnesota Miracle, we’ve talked at great lengths about how New Orleans
nee ds to must fix their issues converting 3rd downs on offense.
That need would set the stage for an almost, but not quite, Saints/Jimmy Graham reunion that failed to get off the ground despite the latter having a pilot license.
Lost in the sauce, however, was that fact that the defense had it’s own 3rd down problems - allowing opposing QBs to complete them at a 41% success rate good for 5th-worst in the league.
The Saints’ weakness at slot defensive back was as visible as the Great Red Spot on Jupiter. It was huge!
Opposing QBs noticed it too, and helped themselves to a passer rating of 94.23 last season when targeting the slot as Kenny Vaccaro (83.75), P.J. Williams (85.52), and Vonn Bell (98.67) took turns leaving the door unlocked and wide open for intruders.
Not surprisingly, Vaccaro had the highest grade of them all and was their best option last year, but the Saints had been working to get a true CB in that spot since the first week of the season.
Why, you ask?
The landscape of the NFL is changing. Jimmy Graham is no longer in his prime, Gronk is mulling retirement, Jason Witten is nearing the end, Tony Gonzales retired following Vaccaro’s rookie year, Julius Thomas flunked once Peyton Manning departed, and Greg Olsen is applying for TV gigs.
The basketball tight end that became a thing is suddenly withering away, as is the hybrid S/CB/LB (or “money backer”) that teams countered with in coverage.
In its place has come an influx of young, talented, and athletic WRs making the Nickel Cornerback En Vogue again.
In fact, dig a bit deeper and you’ll find that for the second straight year, the Saints under Dennis Allen finished above average against tight ends, good for 12th best in the league. In 2016, they finished 14th — and in 2015 they were the WORST team in the league.
Oddly enough, the Saints have only added marginal talent at linebacker in that time span, so I reckon (Sling Blade anyone?) it has something to do with Dennis Allen’s schemes (and Cam Jordan) rarely allowing tight end’s a free release.
#Vikings WR Adam Thielen caught 7 passes for 146 yards from slot vs. #Saints in Week 1 (9-157 overall).— Chris Raybon (@ChrisRaybon) January 10, 2018
Thielen lined up in slot on 72.7% of routes vs. Saints, compared to 49.7% in all other games.
CB Marshon Lattimore played only 22 snaps in slot all season (all per @PFF).
Versus opposing WRs and QBs, however, they didn’t fare quite as well and were closer to average, ranking 17th and 16th in 2017 respectively. This was meteoric improvement over 2016, as the additions of Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams combined with the second-year leap from Ken Crawley helped them improve on their 27th-worst ranking in both – Yet, the 40% third down conversion rate glares.
Naturally, If your No. 1 slot guy (Vaccaro) and your No. 2 slot guy (Williams) finished with the above numbers, then the next logical step to improving coverage is to fix THAT area!
Insert Patrick Robinson, who finished with a PFF grade of 98.6 (High Quality), good for the No. 6 rated Slot DB. While fans hoped for Tyrann Mathieu, who fared slightly better in coverage, I simply trust Robinson to stay healthy for more games than the Honey Badger.
In layman’s terms, former Saint, Charger, Eagle turned Saint again represents a significant and necessary upgrade according to research done by PFF.
The Saints’ chief competition in the NFC South next year looks to be the Atlanta Falcons.
Their high use of 11 personnel (3 WR/1 TE/1 RB sets) + the loss of Taylor Gabriel - their inactivity in free agency hints at them maybe waiting until the draft to replenish the third WR position. Thomas Dimitroff and company could be rolling the dice that a draft pick is a Vince Carter level slam-dunk, or they risk getting worse at a spot crucial to their offensive success.
New Orleans, on the other hand, is familiar with Robinson, he’s got former 1st round pedigree, (Similar to the Ginn signing a year ago) and coming off an extremely productive season playing the role they have envisioned him fulfilling.
It’s still early, but New Orleans gets an ‘A’ for making a smart move they can pencil in as an upgrade on “paper” while putting pressure on their NFC South counterparts to do the same!