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Making sense of the Kurt Coleman signing

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The safety is the third Carolina Panthers free agent to come to New Orleans in two years.

NEW ORLEANS, LA - Carolina Panthers safety Kurt Coleman (20) signals to his coaches on the sideline during the third quarter of an NFC Wild Card playoff game against the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
NEW ORLEANS, LA - Carolina Panthers safety Kurt Coleman (20) signals to his coaches on the sideline during the third quarter of an NFC Wild Card playoff game against the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re washed up like me, you woke up Saturday morning to find out that the New Orleans Saints had agreed to terms with former Carolina Panthers safety Kurt Coleman the night before. Oddly, he joins Ted Ginn Jr. and A.J. Klein as the third former Panthers starter to sign with the Saints, and the fifth Ohio State Buckeyes grad (including Marshon Lattimore, Michael Thomas, Vonn Bell, and Ginn). This is a smart move that reflects last year’s franchise-changing offseason strategy in a number of ways.

First off, the Saints did not overpay Coleman. The detailed finances of his contract are not yet known, but we do know that it carries a max value of $18-million over three years - and that Coleman will collect $6.5-million of that in 2018. That’s an estimated annual average value of $6-million flat, which ranks 20th in the NFL at safety:

This chart is sourced from data collected at OverTheCap.com and ranks every NFL safety’s contract by average annual value.  The bars inside the orange box are those within Coleman’s price range of $6.25-million to $5.6-million.
This chart is sourced from data collected at OverTheCap.com and ranks every NFL safety’s contract by average annual value. The bars inside the orange box are those within Coleman’s price range of $6.25-million to $5.5-million.

Players in the same price range as Coleman include:

If his contract guarantees and salary cap hits are structured similarly to those given Nick Fairley and Manti Te’o, then the Saints can bail on Coleman in 2019 without much dead money. So the Saints didn’t break the bank for Coleman so much as pay him like a low-end starter firmly within the third-tier of talent, and they’ve likely hedged their bets on him being on the downslope of his career.

Additionally, because Coleman was released from his former team rather than allowed to see that contract expire, he will not count against the 2019 compensatory draft pick formula. Should the Saints lose both defensive back Kenny Vaccaro and offensive lineman Senio Kelemete in free agency (and sign no-one else, which is unlikely) they will be +2 in those calculations and qualify for two comp picks.

But back to the football side of this. Coleman is turning 30 this year and will be looking to return form after playing through last season with a bum ankle, which sapped much of his long speed and decreased the range in which he’s able to make plays. It’s why he went from bagging eleven interceptions in 2015 and 2016 to posting a donut in 2017. He’s past that injury now, thankfully, and offers the Saints some of the versatility that Vaccaro and reserve safety Rafael Bush (also an unrestricted free agent) put to use last year.

As noted by the Advocate’s Nick Underhill, Coleman can line up at both strong safety inside the box and drop back into deep looks at free safety. That’s great news for Marcus Williams, who could see more two-deep designs when paired with Coleman. It’s bad news for Vonn Bell, who played box safety ably last year but wasn’t a factor in pass coverage. I expect Coleman’s high football IQ, steady demeanor, and ability to play the ball in the air to win him the starting job over Bell at strong safety, though Bell should still get plenty of action in his third year. He is the team’s best blitzing defensive back (matching Alex Okafor’s 4.5 sacks last year) and a solid tackler inside the hashes.

Something else to note about Coleman is the discipline in his play. Per Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFLPenalties.com, he has been flagged just once in three years as a Panther - a stretch of 46 games including the playoffs. That’s an insane stretch of smart, mistake-free football. For comparison, Vaccaro has picked up seventeen penalty flags over that same time, though just fourteen of them were accepted. That’s a huge positive reversal by itself.

That said, I don’t think Coleman’s signing affects Vaccaro’s spot - or a pursuit of Arizona Cardinals veteran and LSU Tigers hero Tyrann Mathieu, a possible salary cap cut in pursuit of Kirk Cousins. Vaccaro’s responsibilities transformed into a full-time role as the team’s slot cornerback, with him almost-exclusively covering opposing slot receivers. That’s not something Coleman has experience at, and I can easily see the Saints going after a similar specialist (Mathieu?) like Jacksonville Jaguars slot corner Aaron Colvin to replace Vaccaro.

His presence also doesn’t mean everything is great in the defensive backs room. Coleman isn’t a superhero who’s going to save the day on the back end, but he probably lessens the priority to draft another safety from a “need” to a “want” in case someone especially talented falls to them like Minkah Fitzpatrick (Alabama Crimson Tide) or Derwin James (Florida State Seminoles). The Saints aren’t done upgrading their defensive secondary.

Poll

What is your off-the-cuff grade of the Kurt Coleman signing?

This poll is closed

  • 7%
    A - great!
    (117 votes)
  • 63%
    B - good
    (1004 votes)
  • 23%
    C - could be better
    (376 votes)
  • 4%
    D - why, god?
    (77 votes)
1574 votes total Vote Now