Pro Football Focus has been rolling out a number of rankings for different position groups, and the latest rankings for NFL secondaries place the Saints at number eight overall. Saints fans have to be stoked about the incredible improvement in the Saints’ secondary play last season.
The Pro Bowl level play of two rookies, Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams, stabilized a position group that had previously served as Saints fans’ greatest source of anxiety over the majority of the past decade.
First round pick, Marshon Lattimore, crushed his rookie season. He was so effective, at times, the receiver he covered was all but erased from the opposition’s game plan. Lattimore made top tier playmakers like Julio Jones and Mike Evans look pedestrian while limiting the quarterbacks he faced to a ridiculously low 45.3 passer rating while targeting him.
The fresh faced rookie cornerback from Ohio State earned a PFF grade of 90.5 which ranked him fourth overall among all cornerbacks. Lattimore shadowed his receivers so well, he racked up five interceptions, 10 passes defended, and one touchdown.
He was a solid tackler on his way to 45 solo, five assisted, and one tackle for loss. He also forced and recovered one fumble each. Lattimore’s stats, in my mind, were even more impressive since it became evident as the season went on that quarterbacks were actively avoiding throwing in his direction.
The Saints made another valuable and position group altering move when they drafted Utah’s Marcus Williams in the second round. Everyone remembers his missed tackle on Stefon Diggs in the playoffs, but most people might have forgotten that was only Williams’ fifth missed tackle the entire year after starting every game his rookie season.
In fact, Williams earned an 86.8 PFF grade which ranked him 12th overall among all safeties. He showed a knack for being around the ball as he made four interceptions, including one in the same game against Minnesota that spurred the Saints’ near comeback.
And though many hated on his tackling form against Diggs on that final play, Williams was a tackling machine all year as he compiled 66 solo, 11 assisted, and 1 tackle for loss.
The way Williams carried himself following the missed tackle on Diggs showed he is mature and fully capable of learning from his mistakes. I expect Williams to play with even more confidence and swag this year.
The next two important cogs in the Saints secondary are both third year pros who have either met or exceeded fans’ expectations. Safety, Vonn Bell, was serviceable enough for the Saints to feel ok about letting former first round pick Kenny Vacarro walk in free agency. Bell ranked 65th overall among safeties while earning a 69.5 PFF grade.
Bell didn’t notch any interceptions, but he did have one pass defended. He made a greater impression with his tackling. Bell ended with 64 solo, 13 assisted, and 2 tackles for loss. He also added a crucial 5 sacks along the way. New free agent signing, Kurt Coleman, could provide some worthy competition, but so far, Bell has played well enough to justify his spot.
The other important cog flew under the radar in 2016 but came on as an integral piece in the secondary in 2017. Many Saints fans were worried after Delvin Breaux failed to return from his lower leg injury, but Ken Crawley erased those fears immediately after starting in the third game of the season. Once Crawley replaced a struggling De’Vante Harris, he never looked back, and the Saints started rolling along on an eight game winning streak.
Ranked 39th overall with a PFF grade of 81.6, Crawley exceeded all expectations as he locked in the number two cornerback spot. With one interception and 13 passes defended, Crawley made trouble for those assigned to him. In Addition, his tackling was solid as he amassed 50 solo, 2 assisted, and 1 tackle for loss.
The final starting secondary spot, nickel cornerback, will most likely be filled by either PJ Williams or Patrick Robinson. Simply by comparing their production from last year, it’s reasonable to assume P Rob will be given the first opportunity to lock down the nickel spot.
PJ Williams earned a PFF grade of 67.5 and was ranked 83rd overall among cornerbacks. Robinson, on the other hand, earned a PFF grade of 89.8 and was ranked sixth overall among cornerbacks. His four interceptions were his most since 2011, his second season for the Saints. His 11 passes defended and touchdown scored were his most since 2012, his third season for the Saints.
Robinson was a solid tackler on his way to 42 solo, six assisted, and three tackles for loss. He even added one sack and a fumble recovery to boot. If P Rob’s play can be more like that with the 2017 Eagles than with the 2016 Colts, the Saints secondary could be one of the best in the league.
If Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams continue to improve on their already strong career starts, it’s not unfathomable for the Saints to have three top ten starters at the cornerback and safety positions. No matter what, Saints fans should be more excited than ever for this position group. They are young, hungry, and more experienced. If this group can stay healthy, the sky is the limit.