The New Orleans Saints have one of the deepest and most talented rosters in the NFL. Competition for roster spots is expected to be fierce. This is particularly true on the defensive side, where the Saints have shown great improvement over the last two seasons through smart draft picks and shrewd free agent additions. While official roster decisions are still over three months away, the competition for each spot began last week with rookie camp, and will continue through OTA's and into training camp and preseason. Coaches will be faced with some tough decisions, especially on a championship caliber roster such as New Orleans. Here are a few veteran Saints defenders that may be in for the fight of their lives to keep their roster spots this summer.
P.J. Williams, cornerback
Williams, a 3rd round draft choice in 2015 from Florida State, put together his second consecutive full season after missing 30 of the first 32 games of his career with injuries. He had the Saints only defensive touchdown of 2018, scoring on a 45-yd. interception return against Minnesota. Williams added a sack and 2 forced fumbles, along with a career high 53 tackles in 2018, and has 3 interceptions and 18 pass breakups over the last two seasons. He's struggled in man coverage at times though, particularly on the outside, and has been often targeted by opposing quarterbacks with success. Williams, along with most of the New Orleans secondary, was torched often in the first month of last season. The unit solidified itself as the year went along, particularly after the trade acquisition of cornerback Eli Apple in October. Apple's arrival allowed coaches to use Williams in more of a slot coverage role, where he played much better over the second half of the year. Williams was re-signed to a 1-yr. contract this offseason, but must hold off a returning veteran and a talented rookie to have a role in this defense. Patrick Robinson, an accomplished slot corner, returns from a knee injury that ended his 2018 season after just a few games. The Saints also used a 4th round pick on Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, an athletic cover safety who should take on a slot coverage role. Williams is a solid tackler who plays the run well and is seemingly always around the ball. He may have to show improvement in his coverage ability, especially along the outside, if he is to remain on the Saints roster for 2019.
Ken Crawley, cornerback
Crawley, an undrafted rookie from Colorado in 2016, played a key role in his first season and started 13 games in his second. He looked like he was developing into a solid corner to compliment Marshon Lattimore, the 2017 Defensive Rookie of the Year. Crawley regressed badly in 2018 however, becoming a major liability on the back end, and was benched for poor play just a few games into the season. The acquisition of Eli Apple relegated Crawley to a little-used reserve over the last half of the season, but the Saints did tender an offer to the restricted free agent, coming as a surprise to some. Crawley is a 6'1 long-armed corner who has played his best against bigger wideouts and tight ends on the outside. He was second to Lattimore on the team with 17 passes defensed in 2017, and has been credited with 31 career pass breakups and 1 interception. He once showed the potential to be a solid NFL cornerback, but must show great improvement and regain his confidence from a lost season to hold off competition at the position.
Justin Hardee, cornerback
Hardee is best known for being one of the Saints top special teams performers, but has given the team some depth at cornerback over the last two seasons. He had his only career interception in an important Monday night contest against the Redskins last year, returning it 77 yards to set up a momentum changing score. Hardee's value as a special teams contributor can't be underestimated, but he must likely show in preseason that he can be a part of defensive coverage packages. Cornerback Marcus Sherels, an offseason free agent addition, could latch on to one roster spot because of his punt return ability, and competition for the final corner spots could be heavy between he, Hardee, Crawley, and Williams.
Chris Banjo, safety
Banjo, like Hardee, is one of the team's best special teamers. He has also given New Orleans some good depth at the safety spot during his two years with the team, intercepting 3 passes. The Saints used draft picks on Gardner-Johnson, along with a 6th rounder on Saquan Hampton from Rutgers, in hopes of strengthening depth behind starting safeties Vonn Bell and Marcus Williams. Both rookies are versatile safeties who can play either deep or slot coverage, while Hampton also excelled on special teams in college. Banjo must continue his standout special teams play, but will also need to show he can step up defensively to remain in the mix for a roster spot.
Trey Hendrickson, defensive end
Hendrickson was one of the Saints three 3rd round draft picks in 2017 along with Alvin Kamara and Alex Anzalone. He had a solid rookie season, forcing a fumble to go along with 2 sacks and 5 quarterback hits in twelve games, but had little impact a season ago. Hendrickson appeared in just five contests, and although he did register 4 quarterback hits, he did little to secure his spot along the defensive line. End Alex Okafor did depart in free agency, but the Saints signed versatile Mario Edwards Jr., who is capable of playing both tackle and end. The New Orleans starters are set, with All-Pro Cam Jordan and budding second year star Marcus Davenport manning each edge, but the Saints depth spots must still be secured. Hendrickson has an upper hand, given his experience in the defense and nonstop motor. He could be pushed though, by someone like Kaden Elliss, a 7th round selection, or Porter Gustin, an undrafted rookie, leaving the former Florida Atlantic star little margin for slip up.
Which Saints defender faces the biggest likelihood of being cut this summer?
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