The New Orleans Saints have not had a safety make the Pro Bowl since the 2010 season, when Roman Harper earned the honors. The Saints pass defense had ranked lower than 25th in yards allowed in five of six seasons prior to last year, and 30th or lower four of those times. Colossally poor free agent signings (Jairus Byrd, 2014), coupled with inconsistent production from high draft picks (Kenny Vaccaro, 1st round, 2013; Malcolm Jenkins, 1st round, 2009) led to a lack of playmakers in the last line of defense, and record-setting futility as a result. New Orleans invested two high picks in back to back drafts at the safety position while in the process of rebuilding every level of their defense. Today's training camp preview has a look at how this position may influence the fate of the 2018 Saints.
Key Losses: Kenny Vaccaro (free agent), Rafael Bush (free agent, Bills)
Key Additions: Kurt Coleman (free agent, Panthers), Natrell Jamerson (cb/s-draft, 5th round)
The issue that everyone will want to talk about is this: How will Marcus Williams recover mentally from the mistake that caused the Minnesota Vikings to pull off the improbable last second miracle to prevent the Saints from going to the NFC Championship game? Don't forget that it was his stellar play in the second half, including an acrobatic interception that set up a key touchdown, that helped put the Saints in a position to win that game in the first place. Williams, a 2nd round pick last season (42nd overall), was one of an incredible four New Orleans draft choices to be voted onto the NFL's All-Rookie team. His four interceptions were second on the team, and he was third on the team in total tackles. Williams has excellent range in the secondary, along with good play recognition ability and the athleticism to get there and make a play. He gave the Saints their first legitimate playmaker on the back end since Darren Sharper during the 2009 championship season. Williams has had fanatical focus during the offseason, and this young player who played at a Pro Bowl level at times as a rookie looks poised to take another big leap forward.
Prior to using a second round pick on Williams last season, New Orleans had used a 2nd rounder (61st overall) on Vonn Bell in the 2016 draft. Bell's tackle totals last year were a bit down from his rookie outing, but he still led the Saints defense in stops. He has yet to show the ballhawking skills he was known for at Ohio State, having yet to record an interception in his professional career. Bell has shown solid man-to-man coverage skills, and plays well close to the line of scrimmage, one of the reasons the team elected not to try and re-sign Vaccaro. He has proven to be an excellent blitzer as well, finishing tied for second on the team with 4.5 sacks. Chris Banjo provided outstanding special teams play, but also had an interception last season, and contributed some solid snaps at safety during the year. Banjo will look to hold off undrafted free agent J.T. Gray and former Falcons special teamer Sharrod Neasman for one of the final roster spots in the secondary.
To offset the loss of Vaccaro, the Saints signed former Carolina Panthers safety Kurt Coleman in free agency. The 30-yr. old Coleman began his career with Philadelphia in 2010, spending the last three seasons with the division rival Panthers. He has 21 career interceptions, including 11 and two touchdown returns with Carolina, and an NFC-best 7 pick-offs in 2015. Coleman did not have an interception in 2017, but did lead the Carolina secondary in tackles despite missing four games. He brings decent range at free safety, veteran leadership, and extensive familiarity of the quarterbacks and receivers in the NFC South.
The Saints drafted former Wisconsin standout Natrell Jamerson in the 5th round this spring, then followed that by drafting Kamrin Moore from Boston College in the 6th round. Jamerson and Moore were both primarily cornerbacks in college, but will likely get looks at safety in camp, and are outstanding special teams performers. Jamerson in particular, who came to Wisconsin as a receiver but played both safety and corner for the Badgers, could work his way into a key role in the secondary. Despite his inexperience as a defensive back, he shows natural instincts for the position and outstanding athletic ability. New Orleans surprised some by not pursuing Vaccaro or any other big name at safety during free agency, but the safety play was much improved a year ago even without Vaccaro in the lineup at various points. Williams has the look of a perennial Pro Bowler, Bell showed marked improvement in his second season, and Coleman can still provide solid play as a starter. Banjo, or one of the young newcomers, will need to improve to solidify depth, and are expected to contribute heavily on special teams. Vonn Bell and Marcus Williams are among a group of young Saints defenders 25-yrs. old or younger, and their progression is vital for a rapidly improving New Orleans defense that is expected to push for a championship in 2018.