The New Orleans Saints finished just 29th in the league against the pass in 2018. Much of that was due to major struggles in the team's secondary, which was torched often over the first month of the season in particular. The Saints cornerbacks played better as the season went along, particularly after a midseason trade with the New York Giants to acquire Eli Apple. While Apple and last year's Defensive Rookie of the Year Marshon Lattimore were a talented duo at corner, the Saints safety position struggled for most of the year. The free agent signing of veteran safety Kurt Coleman was an abysmal failure, and the position as a whole gave up too many big plays. Today's training camp preview has a look at the Saints most inconsistent defensive position from a year ago.
Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, Saquan Hampton
Perhaps the Saints most puzzling player in 2018 was safety Marcus Williams. An All-Rookie selection as a 2nd round draft choice in 2017, Williams played near a Pro Bowl level much of his first season, and gave the secondary a ballhawking presence on the back end that they had lacked since their 2009 Super Bowl championship season. Williams saw his interception total drop from 4 to 2 in his second season, along with less passes defensed and a drop in tackle numbers. Worse yet, the 6'1 195-lb. defensive back regressed badly in coverage. After showing good instincts and range during his rookie campaign, the 22-yr. old Williams looked lost at times, and was often slow in his reaction over the top, resulting in numerous big plays. New Orleans drafted two safeties this spring, and have at least one Pro Bowl caliber player at every other level of the defense, which could make this a crossroads year for Williams. He must again show that he can be a playmaker for the Saints last line of defense, or perhaps face the possibility of losing his starting role.
While Williams struggled in 2018, his running mate at safety Vonn Bell had the best season of his three year career. A 2nd round pick in the 2016 draft, Bell showed great improvement in coverage, and was often able to skillfully take on opposing tight ends man to man. Extremely valuable to the Saints defense near all over the field, the 5'11 205-lb. Bell is a particularly disruptive presence to opponents near the line of scrimmage. He had a career high 88 tackles last season, the third straight year he has finished first or second on the team in tackles. After early season struggles, along with the rest of the secondary, the 24-yr. old Bell was one of the defense's most underrated players through the last 2/3 of the year. Incredibly though, despite his coverage improvement, he has yet to record a single interception in his 52 games. Bell is in a contract year, and his ability to create more turnovers to his already solid all-around game would not only increase his market value, but also provide a jolt to the entire Saints defense.
Chris Banjo is one of the Saints best special teams contributors, but again proved in his third season with New Orleans that he is capable of filling in at defensive back when needed. Tying for the team lead with 2 interceptions, the 29-yr. old Banjo is limited in his range and coverage ability, but has been able to give the defense decent depth at the position in addition to his standout special teams play. His defensive role may be reduced in 2019 though, because of the two talented safeties that New Orleans acquired in the draft.
The Saints were thrilled that Florida's Chauncey Gardner-Johnson was still available in the 4th round of this spring's draft after he surprisingly fell. Projected by most as a second round pick, Gardner-Johnson starred during the team's O.T.A. workouts last month, displaying athleticism, versatility, and man coverage skills that could provide an immediate impact. The 5'11 210-lb. defensive back has excellent agility and excelled in slot coverage, as a high safety, and as an in the box defender in college, skills that could earn him a starting role quickly. High expectations for a rookie fourth round pick, but Gardner-Johnson has the natural skills and athleticism along with the versatility to be a difference maker in the Saints secondary.
New Orleans doubled up on safety in this spring's draft when they used a 6th round selection on Saquan Hampton from Rutgers. Hampton has good size and strength at 6'1 206-lbs., along with good closing speed on the ball carrier and solid instincts near the line of scrimmage. He was also an accomplished special teams player in college, something that could give him an added advantage in the battle for a roster spot. Although he has good athletic ability, Hampton struggled at times in a read-and-react role as a deep safety in college, but could carve out a role as an in-the-box safety with the ability to take on bigger tight ends in coverage. He will be battling Banjo, Terrell Williams Jr., and J.T. Gray, an undrafted rookie last season who appeared in five games, for the final 1-2 roster spots at the position.
The Saints need Marcus Williams to return to the player he was during his rookie season, and more turnovers to be generated from the position in general. Chauncey Gardner-Johnson looks to be an exciting player that could give the entire secondary a lift, and may even challenge for a starting spot. There weren't many weak areas on the New Orleans Saints in 2018, but they did struggle to contain big plays in the passing game. Failure to do so again in 2019 could very well short circuit their chase for a championship.