Finding a stable number two corner has been an issue for the Saints not just recently but for most of the last decade. Even in the midst of success this issue has loomed. After 2016 when Delvin Breaux was injured and Ken Crawley stepped in there was thought they maybe a potential gem had been found, or at least a stop gap. (Sterling Moore was your other primary starter in 2016... oof). Crawley indeed brought success opposite a rookie Lattimore as a reliable number two. He then fell apart in 2018 and had to be replaced by Eli Apple via a trade who then saw his snaps go down in 2019 when the Saints traded for Janoris Jenkins.
Readers are lucky I didn’t bring up 2015 when the corner opposite Breaux was Brandon Browner. Whoops...
Apple enters this offseason as a free agent as the team (smartly) opted to not pick up his fifth year option. P.J.Williams, though primary a slot corner, was recently brought back on a team friendly deal. The only cornerback really left for the Saints to consider as the starter “if they had to play today” is Jenkins at 31 years old and sitting on an 11 million dollar cap number. There is absolutely no dead money on the final year of that contract (for New Orleans. The New York Giants are eating $3,500,000).
Suffice to say the Saints have decisions to make on the outside. They’ve reportedly brought in Cory Robinson whose expertise has been cornerbacks as a defensive coach. It’s presumed he’ll be the new defensive backs assistant to help right the proverbial ship that has been leaking for the better part of this century. In terms of players there are a lot of options the Saints could look into in both free agency and the NFL draft to try and find some level of consistency in 2019.
With the NFL having wrapped up their CBA negotiations with the NFLPA Loomis once again was able to work his normal contractual magic to create as much cap space as the Saints needed. So, those Saints fans who are worried about whether or not New Orleans could even have afforded Jones (why would anyone doubt Loomis at this point) are just being silly.
Spotrac gave Byron Jones a “market value” of 14.1 Million average annual salary. This was their prediction of what they believed Jones could earn on the open market. In reality, the Miami Dolphins ended up making him the highest paid player at his position with a 5 year, $82.5 million dollar contract with $57 million guaranteed.
Financials aside, what would the Saints have gotten if they did manage to sign Jones. Could he be the consistent starter they had hoped to find with all the aforementioned corners in recent years? To try to answer that we need to look at his years in Dallas.
After a sensational combine performance during the 2015 Draft Process helped Jones get selected in the first round (27th) by the Dallas Cowboys he ended up bouncing around positions for “America’s Team”. Jones played almost every DB position as a rookie with 871 snaps (82.5%) while also contributing on special teams. From 2016-2017 he was the Cowboys’ starting Free Safety before a move to cornerback in 2018 saw his play really elevate to a higher level. Jones is a very instinctive player on the field who meshes his athleticism with quick mental processing to react quickly.
Jones has good route anticipation while doing a good job working to, and staying in, phase as the route develops. Also does a good job of closing separation with a quick burst. Really solid tackler who can also has the size to come down and defend/contain the edge. Many teams will be drawn to Jones’ for his ability to cover the outside without over the top help and do so playing at a high level.
For teams that run a lot of Cover 1 and Cover 3 variations this is the type of young player on the free agent marketplace that can help set the financial bar for the position. Strong man corners who also shows proficiency in zone coverage. Not many corners can cover routes 1-9 at a high level, but Jones has shown the ability to do that at the cornerback position. One of the issues that might worry potential suitors is the ball skills of Jones who has only reeled in 2 interceptions as a pro, and he’s never brought in an interception as a corner.
Injuries during the 2019 season brought down his level of play which leaves only one true year of corner tape to study, but in that year he was one of the better players at the position falling amongst my Top 10 at corner.
Now, how would he have fit into the Saints potential defensive future?
The cost to get Byron Jones might be than Saints fans would have been comfortable with, but Mickey Loomis and company have shown they are not afraid of spending top dollar in free agency for a player they feel will take their prospective side of the field to the next level. While their success doing this is debatable (looking at you Jairus Byrd), it does show they’re willing to do it. They just did not do it with Jones.
The Saints, had they chosen to take the lead in the bidding war, would have been getting a player that fit immediately into Dennis Allen’s scheme that we’ve seen the past three years. It’s been a bit of a turnstyle at CB #2 during Allen’s tenure. Crawley was great for a season and then quickly fell off. Apple came in, did very well, and then after the first few games in 2019 his play took a dip. Janoris Jenkins had to come in. With Jenkins likely having to be adjusted (and at an advanced age for corner), Apple a free agent and Williams a free agent this is quietly a big position of need for the Saints this offseason.
Jones fits the C1/C3 match that Allen has liked to run, but can also run man coverage in a two high system and is proficient in zone coverages as well. In this regard the question really comes down to what will Allen run. We’ve seen him use Cover 1, Cover 2, Cover 3, Cover 4, Cover 6, etc. I think Jones can contribute to any coverage and isn’t limited like a Marcus Peters has shown to be, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t more proficient in certain coverages.
Man coverage is Jones’ strong suit with zone his secondary. Would Allen mold the coverage calls to the cornerbacks he has available? Probably. Jones has very good athletic ability in intermediate and deep routes, and while he has been known to get beat in short/quick routes, that’s the case for most corners in the league; Receivers have the advantage. When healthy in both college and the NFL Jones has put up very good, consistent film at the corner spot. An added bonus is his willingness and history to play special teams, which is something we’ve seen the Saints ask of their starting defensivebacks at times. (Bell/Williams/etc.)
Saints fans won’t like the lack of ball skills that Jones has in terms of his interception/turnover numbers had he come to New Orleans, but they didn’t have those numbers with Apple or Crawley either. The key is getting consistency and that’s what Jones could have provided in the Saints secondary. Two young, first round talents starting at corner? Yes please.
Alas, it wasn’t meant to be as he was picked up by the Dolphins. Do you think the Saints should have made a strong push after reading his scouting report or are you happy they let the Dolphins throw a hefty sum of money?