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2019 New Orleans Saints training camp preview: Cornerback

Will the Saints secondary avoid a repeat of their 2018 early season letdown?

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The New Orleans Saints came into the 2018 season with the thought that they had one of the better cornerback corps in the league. Marshon Lattimore was coming off Defensive Rookie of the Year honors and a Pro Bowl bid, Ken Crawley seemed to be a solid number two compliment, P.J. Williams looked like a potentially competent slot corner, and the Saints had brought back former 1st round draft pick Patrick Robinson. The Saints instead began the '18 season with their pass defense getting embarrassed against Tampa Bay in the season opener, then again two weeks later against rival Atlanta, giving up a combined 88 points, 776 passing yards and 9 touchdowns through the air in the two contests. Crawley regressed badly, and would eventually be benched. Williams' play was nearly as bad, and Robinson went down with a season ending injury in week three. New Orleans swung a deal with the New York Giants at the league's trade deadline at midseason though to acquire Eli Apple, and Lattimore solidified his coverage after early season struggles to play well down the stretch of the year. The Saints still finished just 29th in the league against the pass, mostly due to those early season breakdowns. Coming into 2019, Lattimore and Apple look to be one of the better tandems in the NFL, Robinson returns from injury, and the team made some offseason moves at the position. The Saints officially open training camp later this week, and today we look at one of the defense's most scrutinized positions.

CORNERBACK

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at New Orleans Saints Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Offseason losses:

None

Offseason additions:

Marcus Sherels, Kayvon Webster

Marshon Lattimore rebounded from a poor start to the 2018 season to often play at a Pro Bowl level over the year's last half. The 23-yr. old corner actually had more solo tackles (49) and total tackles (59) then he did in his rookie year. The 11th overall selection in the '17 draft, Lattimore is among the league's best all-around defensive backs, but is also capable of taking on an opponent's best receiver man to man. The 6'0 192-lb. Lattimore has the strength, athleticism, and coverage skills to take on the league's best, attributes that allow coordinator Dennis Allen to be more aggressive with his blitz and coverage packages. He has outstanding ball skills, and has accounted for 18 turnovers (9 interceptions, 5 forced fumbles, and 4 fumble recoveries) in his 33 games including playoffs. Lattimore is one of the key players on a young and talented Saints defense.

Pittsburgh Steelers v New Orleans Saints Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

The Saints sent 4th and 7th round draft picks to the New York Giants last October in exchange for starting cornerback Eli Apple. The 10th overall pick in the 2016 draft, the almost 24-yr. old Apple started the last twelve games (including playoffs) for his new team, tying for the team lead with 2 interceptions and finishing second with 9 pass breakups. The 6'1 203-lb. Apple gives New Orleans an athletic and physical man to man defender to compliment Lattimore, enabling the Saints to match up with the best wide receiver duos in the league. The team did not pick up a fifth year option on Apple's rookie contract, which will now make him an unrestricted free agent at season's end. Although he doesn't have quite the coverage skills of Lattimore, he does possess many of the attributes of a number 1 cornerback. The Saints expect big things from Apple, after a full offseason in their defensive system.

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Patrick Robinson rejoined the Saints last offseason, his fourth different team in as many years. A 1st round draft pick in 2010 by New Orleans (32nd overall), Robinson had an up and down five years with the Saints before rounding into one of the league's better slot corners with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2017. Unfortunately, Robinson's '18 season ended during a week three victory at Atlanta with an ankle injury. Now fully recovered, the 5'11 191-lb. veteran is expected to solidify slot coverage for a Saints defense that struggled greatly in that area a year ago. Robinson, who turns 32 in September, has the speed and quickness to stay with most wideouts, and has gotten better in route recognition as he's been in the league.

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P.J. Williams was re-signed to a one year deal this offseason, surprising to some after an inconsistent career. Originally a 3rd round pick by New Orleans in 2015, the 26-yr. old Williams missed all of his rookie year and all but two games of his second season with injuries. Over the last two years, Williams has been just as prone to surrendering the big play as he has making them. Often overwhelmed in coverage as an outside corner, the 6'0 196-lb. Williams played much better after Apple's acquisition, when he was used as mostly slot or off the ball coverage.

NFL: Washington Redskins at New Orleans Saints Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Justin Hardee enters his third year with the Saints, and is one of the team's best special teamers. He has filled in at defensive back in each of the last two years, intercepting a pass last season. Hardee is one of the league's better special teams players, but may need to show more. With the Saints added depth through the secondary, Hardee may need to distinguish himself more in the defensive backfield this preseason to cement a roster spot.

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One of the biggest disappointments of the 2018 season was the play of Ken Crawley, who regressed badly in his third season. After appearing in 15 games as an undrafted rookie from Colorado in 2016, starting five, Crawley started 13 games and finished second on the team in passes defensed in 2017. Many believed that he was progressing into a solid starter, but Crawley instead played so poorly that he was a defensive liability, leading to him being benched before midseason. He will likely need to revert to him 2017 form to have even an outside chance at a roster spot.

The Saints signed veterans Kayvon Webster and Marcus Sherels this offseason to provide competition and bolster depth at the position. Originally a 3rd round draft choice by the Denver Broncos in 2013, Webster was a key reserve on an outstanding 2015 Broncos defense that won Super Bowl 50. He left Denver after the '16 season to sign with the Los Angeles Rams, where he was having a career best year before tearing his Achilles after eleven games. The 28-yr. old Webster is now trying to resurrect his career, after playing in only two games in 2018 with the Houston Texans. The Saints signed the 31-yr. old Sherels away from the Minnesota Vikings more for his special teams prowess than his defensive ability. The ten year veteran is the Vikings franchise leader in both punt return average and return touchdowns, but New Orleans is hopeful that Sherels can latch on to a backup job in the defensive backfield.

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New Orleans also used a fourth round draft pick this spring on the versatile and talented Chauncey Gardner-Johnson from Florida. Projected by most to be a second round selection before falling to New Orleans, Gardner-Johnson should challenge for one of the top safety spots. He stood out greatly during the team's OTA workouts last month for his cover skills though, and could also be in the mix for a slot coverage role with his athleticism and man to man coverage ability.

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Marshon Lattimore and Eli Apple are one of the NFL's better cornerback tandems, each capable of taking on some of the league's best wideouts. Their coverage skills allow coordinator Dennis Allen to be more creative and aggressive with his defensive packages. New Orleans often had difficulty against multiple receiver packages and deep receiving units in 2018 however. They hope that Robinson's return to the lineup and that Gardner-Johnson will be able to solidify the defense's issues in the slot. Their ability to do so may transform what was a good Saints defense in 2018 to a potentially elite unit, possibly putting the finishing touches on a championship pursuit.