The New Orleans Saints had one of the youngest secondaries in the NFL during the 2018 season. Seven of their primary defensive backs average less than 24 years old, and each had less than 3 years of NFL experience heading into the 2018 season. The inexperienced unit struggled early in the year, as the defense sat at the bottom of the league in pass defense. As the year progressed, the Saints secondary fortified itself a bit, particularly after making a deal at the league's trade deadline. Let's have a look at how one part of the Saints secondary fared during the season.
Marshon Lattimore, the 11th overall pick of the 2017 draft, had a rookie season in which he intercepted five passes, locked down some of the best receivers in the game, was voted to the Pro Bowl, and won the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. His sophomore campaign started a bit rocky, as he and the entire New Orleans secondary struggled to stop big plays through the air at the beginning of the year. Lattimore's play evened out as the season went along however, as he re-established himself as one of the better cornerbacks in the NFL. Pro Football Focus (PFF) graded his performance at 74.1 in 2018. It was a lower grade than his rookie campaign, but 26th among 131 cornerbacks rated and the highest among all corners in the NFC South. Lattimore actually finished with more total tackles and solo tackles than the year before, and shows a penchant for making big plays in the open field. He only had 2 interceptions, but good enough to tie for the team lead, and also led the Saints with 4 forced fumbles, 3 fumble recoveries, and 12 passes defensed. Lattimore was one of the defensive stars of the divisional round playoff victory over Philadelphia, intercepting two passes and helping bottle up a talented Eagles receiving corps. He has all the tools of a top cornerback, and continues to show the ability to lock on to any of the league's best receivers.
The Saints traded their 4th round pick in the upcoming draft last October to the New York Giants to acquire Eli Apple, the 10th overall selection of the 2016 draft. Apple, a teammate of Lattimore and Saints safety Vonn Bell at Ohio State, was able to stabilize the New Orleans secondary after their early season struggles. In ten regular season games with New Orleans, Apple was credited with 9 passes defensed, tied for second on the team, along with tying for the team lead with 2 interceptions. His struggles with the Giants over his first two seasons were well documented, but Apple provided a solid coverage compliment to Lattimore for the Saints secondary.
P.J. Williams drew the ire of many Saints fans for his coverage breakdowns over the first portion of the season. Once the team traded for Apple, coordinator Dennis Allen was able to limit Williams' snaps and play him primarily out of the slot, where his play improved. A tendency to get lost in coverage down the field, Williams is a solid tackler and plays aggressively near the line of scrimmage. He had 1 interception and a quarterback sack in 2018, forcing 2 fumbles while breaking up nine passes. The 25-yr. old Williams, a 3rd round draft pick in 2015, is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent. Given his coverage liabilities, it seems likely that the team will let him test the open market.
Patrick Robinson was signed as an unrestricted free agent last offseason, returning to the franchise that he played for from 2010-14 after being drafted with the 32nd overall pick. He bounced around to three different teams in three years after his departure from New Orleans following the '14 season, but was one of the better slot corners in the league with Philadelphia in 2017. The elder statesman of the Saints secondary at 31 years old, Robinson did not get to make a major contribution to the team in 2018, suffering a knee injury that ended his season in week three.
Ken Crawley had shown the potential of being a solid number two cornerback compliment to Lattimore during a productive 2017 season. Unfortunately, he regressed badly in 2018, looking completely lost and inept in coverage and getting benched before the midseason point. The 26-yr. old Crawley is a restricted free agent, but the Saints are not expected to offer him a tender, allowing him to hit the open market.
Justin Hardee gives the Saints quality depth in the secondary, and is one of the league's better special teams defenders. Although his value to New Orleans lies mainly in his special teams contributions, Hardee had two tackles for loss in 2018, and had a momentum grabbing interception which he returned 77 yards in an early season victory over the Redskins.
Getting Robinson back from injury should be a major upgrade to a Saints cornerback unit that struggled with deeper receiving corps last season. Lattimore's play improved once the team had acquired Apple, allowing him to play primarily on the right side. According to Pro Football Focus, opposing quarterbacks had just a 67.5 rating when throwing towards Lattimore when he lined up on right side, throwing 3 interceptions while completing no touchdowns. Apple had the greater part of his success while lined up on the left, allowing opponents just a 76.5 passer rating, giving up only two touchdown passes and intercepting two. Both Lattimore and Apple give the Saints an athletic and physical set of cover cornerbacks capable of playing solid man-to-man against most of the league's wideouts. After giving up tons of passing yardage over the first half of the year, the cornerback play was a key factor in holding six of the Saints last ten opponents under 210 yards passing.
CORNERBACK GRADE = C+
How would you grade the New Orleans cornerbacks in 2018?
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