The New Orleans Saints won the NFC South division last year for the first time since 2011, thanks in large part to a vastly improved defense that complimented their always prolific offense. The play and health of the Saints secondary, often a team weakness, was a major reason for the improvement. The team had an incredible Seven defensive backs miss significantly time with injuries in 2016, severely limiting any consistent effectiveness. The Saints addressed the issue in a big way before entering last season, drafting a cornerback with the 11th overall pick and a safety, Marcus Williams, with the 42nd overall selection in the 2017 draft to add to their already very young defensive backfield. After previewing the safety position last week, we take a look at what could turn out to be one of the deepest positions on the team in today's training camp preview.
Key Losses: Delvin Breaux (free agent, CFL)
Key Additions: Patrick Robinson (free agent, Eagles), Natrell Jamerson (draft, 5th round)
Marshon Lattimore surprisingly fell to number eleven in last spring's draft, and the Saints wasted no time in pouncing on the Ohio State star. Lattimore would not only win the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, but became the first New Orleans cornerback since Eric Allen in 1995 to be voted to the Pro Bowl, and just the fourth cornerback in franchise's 52-yr. history to receive such an honor. Lattimore led the Saints in interceptions (5, including one for a touchdown), pass breakups (18), and quickly established himself as one of the league's top cornerbacks. He can play either outside or slot, is equally effective in man to man or off coverage, and would often lock on to the opposition's top receiver. He has the size, athleticism, and natural cover skills to match up with the NFL's best receivers. Lattimore was primarily responsible for limiting star wideouts Jarvis Landry, Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson, DaVante Adams, DeSean Jackson, and Mike Evans to an average of just 25 yards per game when facing the Saints last season, and not a single touchdown reception. Atlanta's Julio Jones, widely considered as perhaps the top receiver in the league, was held out of the end zone in two memorable matchups against the Saints star rookie in what looks to be a gripping rivalry for many years going forward. Lattimore's ability to take on the opponent's best receiver with little help has an effect on the entire defense. It allows coordinator Dennis Allen to employ more intricate coverage schemes, as well as freeing up extra defenders for run support or more aggressive blitz packages.
Ken Crawley was literally thrown into the fire in 2016, his rookie season. After making the team as an undrafted free agent from Colorado, Crawley was pressed into a starting role due to the team's mounting injuries in the secondary. The result was a predictably uneven performance, but one where Crawley showed potential as he gained valuable experience. After an inconsistent performance last preseason that caused him to be inactive for the first two games of the season, Crawley was inserted back into the the starting lineup, where he and Lattimore formed one of the better cornerback duos in the league. Due to Lattimore's lockdown skills, Crawley was often targeted by opposing offenses, and responded with the second most pass breakups on the team, along with his first career interception. He was particularly tough to throw against near the goal line, giving the opposition fits with his tall frame and long reach. Crawley does struggle with smaller, shifty receivers, but performs his best against big physical wideouts, a trait that certainly suits him well against the bigger targets through the NFC. Like Crawley, De'Vante Harris was pressed into action during his rookie year of 2016 after making the team as an undrafted free agent. Unlike Crawley, Harris has not progressed, struggling mightily a season ago. He opened up the year as a starter in the first two games against Minnesota and New England, both losses. Harris was benched after those two contests, as the New Orleans defense surrendered a combined 692 yards passing, six touchdowns and 80% completion percentage. His defensive snaps were limited after that, but in two games when Harris did receive more extensive playing time, the Saints gave up a combined 665 yards and five passing touchdowns in games against the Redskins and Rams. Although he will be given an opportunity to compete for a roster spot again, Harris seems likely to be the first veteran cut from this group.
After playing in less than six quarters in his first two seasons due to injury, P.J. Williams played in all 16 games in 2017, starting six. Although he had 2 interceptions and nine pass breakups, Williams' performance was inconsistent, and he often struggled in man coverage. Arthur Maulet looks to make a bid for extensive playing time this season, after making the squad as an undrafted free agent last year. The native of Kenner, Louisiana is a bit undersized, but is an aggressive man-to-man defender with explosive leaping ability. He earned a roster spot last season with solid coverage during the preseason and standout special teams play. Another special teams standout was reserve cornerback Justin Hardee, who had the third most snaps on the team on special teams, providing solid kick coverage, and blocked a punt against Tampa Bay, returning it for a key touchdown.
Patrick Robinson returned to the Saints this offseason, where he played for five seasons after being drafted in the first round (32nd overall) in 2010. Robinson was often inconsistent during his first stint in New Orleans, and has played for three different teams in the previous three years, but was one of the better slot corners in the league last season with the Eagles. Natrell Jamerson was drafted in the 5th round this spring, in part because of his outstanding special teams play, and also for his versatility in the secondary at Wisconsin. Jamerson, who was recruited to the Badgers as a wide receiver, played both safety and corner during his final three collegiate seasons. He will likely see snaps at both cornerback and safety this preseason, and shows natural defensive back instincts despite his inexperience. Crawley, Harris, and Maulet all made impacts as undrafted college free agents, and the latest player to watch may be former University of Cincinnati star Linden Stephens. Stephens has both the size and athleticism to match up with most receivers, and exhibits the aggressive coverage style that Dennis Allen and secondary coach Aaron Glenn prefer to play. The top three roster spots at cornerback look set, with Lattimore, Crawley, and likely Robinson. The major questions at this position are this:
1) Will the Saints get the erratic Patrick Robinson of 2010-16, or the Robinson that starred for a tough Philadelphia defense a year ago?
2) Will any of the young New Orleans corners (Maulet, Jamerson, Stephens) be able to take spots away from more established veterans like Williams, Hardee, and Harris?
Competition for those final 2-3 cornerback positions should be fierce throughout training camp and preseason games. The performance of Lattimore and Crawley helped spark a major defensive improvement in 2017, but the defense struggled when either of the two were out of the lineup. The improved depth of the Saints cornerback unit could be one of the keys to a championship run in 2018.
Which New Orleans cornerback do you expect to grab a top spot behind Lattimore, Crawley, and Robinson?
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