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Who will be the Saints’ starting free safety in 2021?

With Marcus Williams hitting free agency, how will the Saints replace their center-fielding safety

New Orleans Saints v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Ever since Marcus Williams was drafted in the New Orleans Saints’ legendary 2017 draft class, he’s been roaming the Saints defense as the center-fielding free safety the Saints thought they were getting when they signed Jarius Byrd all those years ago. Despite this horrific missed tackle in his rookie year in some random game against the Vikings, Williams has been a key piece of the Saints defense in his four-year tenure for Sean Payton’s squad. He’s racked up 14 interceptions along with 12 pass breakups since being drafted out of Utah, adding a 98.3 passer rating against and only being penalized eight times. Even the biggest weakness on Williams heading into the season, his tackling, was improved upon, as he only charted 2 missed tackles in 2020 (per Pro Football Focus).

However, the bill always comes due with drafting players of Williams’s caliber. With the free safety scheduled to hit free agency in 2021 at the height of the Saints’ well-documented salary cap issues, it remains to be seen if PFF’s 8th rated safety in 2020 will be back in the black and gold in 2021. That lends us to the question, who will be starting in the free safety role for the Saints in 2021?

The obvious answer to this question is Marcus Williams himself. This could happen in one of two ways. First being that Williams signs a long-term deal with the Saints that’s heavily backloaded to ease up on their cap issues for 2021 and puts more of the burden on future seasons. The Mickey Loomis Special, if I may. “Kicking the can down the road” in terms of salary cap issues has tended to be the Saints’ MO since Loomis became the general manager of the team in 2002, even moreso recently as the Saints attempted to get Drew Brees one more ring before he retired, and this would be another instance of it in hopes of keeping together what has proven to be an excellent Saints defense.

The other way to keep Williams around would be the franchise tag. With Williams projected to get ~$15 million a year in free agency this season, the Saints could bypass that by using the franchise tag on Williams for 2021. For those that are unaware, the franchise tag was put in place in the NFL and NFLPA’s collective bargaining agreement to allow a franchise to tag one player that would otherwise be an unrestricted free agent (what Williams would be). The team would keep the player for another year and said player would play for the average salary of the top five salaried players at his position. For safeties, that comes out to about $11 million for 2021. Placing a tag on Williams would bring him back to New Orleans this season and send him to free agency next season set to get the big contract he would miss out on this offseason. Good short term for the Saints, poor long term.

While again, the Saints cap situation is limited in 2020, they could look in free agency. Two names to look for on that list would be either Denver Broncos safety Justin Simmons or New York Jets safety Marcus Maye. Both are players that played majority of their snaps as a free safety in 2020 while also finishing the season with a higher PFF coverage grade than Williams. However, this is another issue where the Saints’ salary cap woes might not let this happen, as both are projected to stay with their respective teams. At this point, the Saints should just focus on keeping Marcus Williams.

Lastly, there’s the NFL Draft. With the Saints picking 28th in the upcoming draft, they could opt to look to one of the members of this year’s class of rookies to replace the potential Marcus Williams void. ESPN draft specialist Mel Kiper has the Saints’ landing TCU safety Trevon Moehrig with their first round pick. Moehring is the consensus top safety in the 2021 draft, with his 20 pass breakups leading all safeties. However, Moehrig is more of a box safety/slot corner type in the mold of Chauncey C.J. Ceedy Duce Gardner-Johnson. Drafting him would allow the Saints to play Malcolm Jenkins higher up in the free safety role, which he saw time in during 2020. If the Saints opt to spend their first round pick elsewhere, they could go back in the second round to look at Andre Cisco from Syraucse. Reading Cisco’s pre-draft profile reads like a rookie Marcus Williams. Outrageous range from the safety position, an absolute playmaker with 26 INTs + PBU’s, however with some tackling issues and the potential to bite a little too easily on moves. He’s not a perfect prospect, but with work he could be as much of a like-to-like replacement of Williams as you could find.

The Saints could also look in-house to replace Williams, having gotten notable free safety snaps out of P.J. Williams and Malcolm Jenkins in 2020. However, it should be fairly clear that neither are a suitable replacement for Marcus Williams and the Saints would struggle immensely if this was the route they chose.

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