While most of the hype this week is, rightfully, about Teddy Bridgewater and roster cuts, the overall offseason hype has generally surrounded the man the Saints traded two first round picks for: Marcus Davenport. A lot of the focus from fans since May has been on what type of impact Davenport can make in year one. When focusing on free agency, Ben Watson, Demario Davis, and Kurt Coleman are many times the first names brought up. After all, each seems primed for a starting role. However, when we focus on this season alone, by far the most impactful new Saint could and should be Patrick Robinson, and I want to spend my first piece at CSC diving deep into the impact he could have on the Saints.
First of all, John Sigler and Ellias Williams each wrote fantastic pieces on Robinson after the signing. If you never got the chance to read them or if you want a great refresher, check them out then come back here.
One of the first questions that should come to mind when analyzing the Robinson vs Lattimore impact is: “How could a #3 corner possibly have the same impact as a shutdown number one?” In games where Lattimore was healthy, he played in about 93.6% of defensive snaps (and it would be higher if the Saints didn’t bench their starters at the end of the Buffalo game). Robinson, on the other hand, won’t even see the field when the Saints are in base defense. But does that really matter? After all, base defense is used over nickel/dime when the defense prefers linebackers (run-stoppers) over an extra defensive back (pass-defender). So those are plays where Robinson and Lattimore alike are having little impact. Additionally, the Saints and NFL as a whole is trending away from base defense and more towards nickel. Last season, the NFL as a whole used base defenses in 33.1% of plays per Football Outsiders. They used nickel or dime on 65.2% of plays. The Saints accentuated this to an even greater extent, running base on just 23% of plays and using nickel/dime on 74% of plays again per Football Outsiders. Only three teams in the NFL ran a lower percentage of plays from base as the Saints.
So now that we’ve established that play time shouldn’t decrease Robinson’s impact significantly, let’s move onto the next question: “How could Robinson have the impact Lattimore did if Lattimore is facing #1 receivers on the outside while Robinson just defends slot receivers?” Well, as Ellias and Pro Football Focus have pointed out, targeting slot receivers is just as valuable, if not more so, than targeting an outside receiver, particularly with the dearth of adept slot defenders in the NFL today.
And while we as fans think of the best receivers are lining up on the outside, here are a list of players, per Football Outsiders who received more than 50% of their targets last season from the slot: Robert Woods, Golden Tate, Larry Fitzgerald, Doug Baldwin, Jarvis Landry, T.Y. Hilton, Adam Thielen, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Keenan Allen, Michael Thomas, and Julio Jones. You might also realize that many of these guys also don’t run the majority of their routes from the slot. However, smarter teams (like the Saints) have realized that, in key situations, the slot is incredibly efficient, and, frankly, there just aren’t many slot corners who can match up with these guys.
And this year might make the slot corner more important than ever. With the new helmet rules that no one really understands, will linebackers and safeties be more timid about putting their head into a receiver to try and break up a pass over the middle? While there’s no data to support or refute this, it does make intuitive sense. And if that does turn out to be the case, the slot receiver and tight end could become even more efficient targets this season. It then becomes more important than ever to have a slot corner who can prevent the quarterback from even attempting that throw.
So now that we’ve established that the importance of the slot corner in general, it’s time to talk about the man himself and, first, what he’ll be replacing. Until he got hurt, Kenny Vaccaro was the Saints’ primary slot defender, and let’s just say he struggled in the role. Of all defensive backs who qualified, Vaccaro had the third lowest coverage grade last season per Pro Football Focus. The Saints as a whole struggled defending the slot even after Vaccaro went out. Think about this: the Saints gave up a passer rating as a team of 80.9. They gave up a passer rating of 94.23 when targeting the slot. Think for a second about what this means: the Saints passer rating allowed outside of the slot was probably well into the 70s, a number that would have ranked them probably #3 in the NFL instead of the #8 ranking they obtained including the slot defense.
We can also look at passer rating by target depth and location. Slot Corners are responsible for most areas of the field (wherever the route the receiver they’re covering takes), but, in general, they are most responsible for the short middle of the field. Sharp Football Stats divides the field into 6 areas, left, middle, and right for short (less than 15 yards) and deep (15+ yards). From here, I decided to only look at wide receivers so as to ignore running backs, full backs, and tight ends. The slot corners normally won’t cover these. Using this, you can probably guess where the Saints’ glaring weakness was last season. Over the middle of the field under 15 yards, the Saints gave up a passer rating of 112 to receivers, an abysmal mark. The remaining 5 areas of the field? They gave up, on average, about a 66 passer rating to receivers. The NFL average for the short middle of the field was 93 last season. There were only six teams with a higher passer rating than 112 allowed to receivers in this area: Carolina, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Kansas City, New England, and San Francisco. Now this is obviously not all on the slot. Anyone can run a route over the short middle, and it might not always be the slot corner’s job to cover this. But this is still usually the slot corner’s area, and this data lines up with our previous findings. The Saints were one of the worst teams defending the slot.
Now that we’ve established the low point the Saints are starting at, we can finally talk about Patrick Robinson himself. Let’s start off at a high level, reiterating what’s been said in prior articles. As Nick Underhill has pointed out, Robinson really started finding his groove just before he left New Orleans. After struggling on the outside, Robinson excelled in the slot, giving up just a 57.6 passer rating in the slot in 2014 on New Orleans, followed by a 67.7 rating allowed in the slot in 2015 before allowing just a 64.96 passer rating last year. As Nick states, QBs last year went just 21-44 targeting Robinson last year for 284 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions.
Now just how good is all of that? Pro Football Focus graded Robinson as the second best slot corner in the NFL last season behind Kendall Fuller, now of the Chiefs. As we’ve established, slot corners are almost as if not as valuable as an outside corner. Overall, Robinson graded out as the #6 corner per PFF last season, just ahead of someone you might have heard of, Marshon Lattimore. Now this isn’t to say Robinson is better than Lattimore straight up. This simply shows that Robinson was, ever-so-slightly more effective covering his man than Lattimore. Now that doesn’t take competition into account: so Marshon doesn’t get any bonus points for covering Julio Jones while someone else covers the 4th WR for the Browns. Tt’s not a perfect measure, but it’s a good data point, and it shows something that lines up with the stats and tape. Patrick Robinson is damn good at covering the slot.
Remember the directional passing chart we talked about earlier, the one where the Saints gave up a 112 passer rating to WRs over the middle of the field less than 15 yards downfield? The Eagles gave up an 82 passer rating in that same area, well below the NFL average of 92. Only eight teams bested that 82 mark last season: Baltimore, Buffalo, Denver, LA Rams, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Seattle, and Washington. Once again, this isn’t all Robinson, but he’s a major, if not the major, key to the success.
Despite all of this, when looking at overall impact, it’s still hard to say a slot corner can have the same impact as a true #1 corner who shadows top receivers. But think about this. We all remember how incredible and stifling that Eagles defense was last year. If you dive deeper, you’ll find that the Eagles’ starting corners besides Robinson ranked #22 and #60 last season per PFF. The starting safeties ranked #20 and #25. That’s good, but that’s not what you think of as an elite, top 10 pass defense. The Eagles had the (T)-9th best passer rating against last season, at 81.0 overall. Having the best defensive line in the NFL certainly helps, but what made that secondary so great was having an elite, shutdown corner in the lineup. That lets you isolate the player and give help elsewhere.
So lets put it all together and look at the impact. One of the underrated things that made Lattimore’s impact last season so spectacular is that the Saints really took two leaps with Lattimore. There was the leap from bad (2016 Sterling Moore, Ken Crawley, B.W. Webb) to average and then the leap from average to elite. Each of those jumps, especially at a position as crucial as cornerback, and can have dramatic effects on a defense. Together, they produce the 2017 New Orleans Saints. This is what makes the prospect of Patrick Robinson so tantalizing. The 2018 Saints have an opportunity to make a similar leap from one of the worst slot defenses in the NFL to maybe the best, if Robinson can duplicate his production from last season. Here’s the list of teams that had two top 10 corners last year per PFF: Jacksonville. That’s it. That’s what makes the Robinson-Lattimore duo so exciting. The Jacksonville front was terrifying, but don’t you think a big part of their success was the fact that it was near impossible to throw on them. The QB probably had to hold onto the ball leading to sacks and fumbles?
The point can be made that the Saints were terrible vs the run last season, and Vaccaro, for all his faults, was a good run defender. While Robinson on his own isn’t Vaccaro against the run, the presence of another shutdown corner gives you so much more to work with. From a scheming perspective, Safeties and linebackers don’t have to be worried about the middle of the field on passes, so linebackers can pin their ears back and attack the run, and safeties can shade to the “weak” link of the Saints corners, Crawley (who was a top 45 corner per PFF last season, better than the Eagles’ #3 corner, Jalen Mills).
In summary, not only did the Saints shore up the weakest spot in their secondary, they did so by turning to one of the best slot cornerbacks in the NFL, turning their weakest point into one of the defense’s biggest strengths. If Robinson can replicate his performance last year, the Saints could easily become a top 3 passing defense, possibly giving them the biggest No Fly Zone outside of Jacksonville. And unlike the Jaguars, who were oh-so close to the Super Bowl despite being devoid of offensive talent, the Saints have a couple guys named Drew Brees, Michael Thomas, and Alvin Kamara. Good luck with that, NFL.