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Saints 2021 offseason preview: Defensive backs

Saints top-5 pass defense should remain intact going into 2021

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Season Review

The Saints secondary had one of their better years in recent memory in 2020. They finished as a top-5 passing defense for the first time since 2013, and finished tied for first in the NFL in interceptions with 18. Malcolm Jenkins returned to the team that drafted him after six years with the Philadelphia Eagles, and tied the team lead in interceptions with 3. Marcus Williams and Janoris Jenkins also intercepted 3 passes, while Marshon Lattimore and Patrick Robinson managed to get 2 each. Former Gator C.J. Gardner-Johnson continued to make great strides as well, playing the fifth most snaps in the secondary and transitioning to more of a slot corner/box safety role. His development as a great player (and trash talker) is yet another steal the Saints have found in the NFL Draft. Despite this success, Marshon Lattimore was the lone Pro Bowler in the group.

Looking ahead to 2021, the biggest question for the secondary will be if Marcus Williams will be back or not. The free safety out of Utah has started every game he has played for the Saints since being drafted in 2017. Re-signing him should be the Saints’ top priority this offseason. Fortunately for New Orleans, no other starting defensive back will be a free agent this offseason, with Marshon Lattimore needing a new deal next offseason and Janoris Jenkins and Malcolm Jenkins both under contract through 2023 and 2024 respectively.

2020 Personnel:

(Player-Position-Snap Count)

Janoris Jenkins-CB-918

Marshon Lattimore-CB-990

Patrick Robinson-CB-248

P.J. Williams-CB/S-537

C.J. Gardner Johnson-CB/S-960

Malcolm Jenkins-S-1,155

D.J. Swearinger-S-124

Marcus Williams-S-999

Upcoming Free Agents

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Marcus Williams

Fourth-year safety Marcus Williams should be the Saints primary target this offseason when it comes to player retention. He is just 24 years old and has been a quality starter since his rookie year. The Saints must get Williams re-signed if they are to keep the secondary strong. If Williams is re-signed, the entire starting secondary from 2020 will be returning barring a trade or cap casualties.

More on Marcus Williams can be read here and here

D.J. Swearinger

Swearinger’s first full year in New Orleans saw him play primarily as a backup free safety, behind both Marcus Williams and P.J. Williams on the depth chart. Swearinger is still fairly young at 29 years old, and has proven himself to be a quality safety before, as he intercepted 8 passes in two years with the Washington Football Team from 2017 to 2018.

Swearinger could be brought back fairly easily for depth purposes, as he signed a 1-year extension worth just $1.1 million in the 2020 offseason. However, if another team believes Swearinger is still the same player he was just two years ago in Washington, they may attempt to sign him for more than the Saints would want to offer. If the Saints manage to resign Marcus Williams, Swearinger would certainly look to move on from New Orleans if a team is willing to make him their first or second option at safety.

If Swearinger receives little intrigue from the rest of the league, and he is willing to remain a backup, the Saints should bring him back. Otherwise, they should let him walk.

P.J. Williams

The sixth-year Saint played primarily at free safety in 2020 after many years at slot corner. Versatility will help Williams remain on the roster for next season, especially if he continues to play well. Williams started just three games in 2020, but managed to recover two fumbles and intercept one pass on top of recording 40 tackles. Williams is younger than D.J. Swearinger, and is likely to receive less interest from other teams as he is not as known a commodity as Swearinger. Williams will most likely be brought back as the backup free safety.

Potential Free Agent Targets

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Marcus Maye

Maye has been a bright spot on an otherwise poor Jets team over the last few years. If the Saints fail to retain Marcus Williams, Maye would be a good player to look at as a replacement if they can afford him. He is 27 years old and currently playing the best football of his career. For the right price, he would be a quality option if Marcus Williams gets away.

Malik Hooker

The talented safety from Ohio State missed most of the 2020 season with a torn Achilles tendon. He has missed 3+ games in each of his first four seasons in Indianapolis, but when healthy, he is a very good player, with 7 interceptions in 36 career games. The Colts declined his fifth-year option before his injury, so it is unlikely they will try that hard to resign the 24-year old, especially coming off an Achilles injury. If the Saints can look past the health problems, Hooker could be a sneaky good pick up in free agency as a potential Marcus Williams replacement.

Potential Draft Targets

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 28 TCU at Kansas Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Trevon Moehrig-S-TCU

Moehrig is seen by most as the top safety prospect in the NFL draft. With the Saints sitting at 28, it is unlikely, but not completely out of the realm of possibility that he will still be on the board when the Saints are on the clock. Moehrig recorded 9 passes defensed and 2 interceptions in his final year at TCU, and would be the Saints best option in the draft to replace Marcus Williams.

Talanoa Hufanga-S-USC

USC Trojans safety Talanoa Hufanga had far and away his best year in college in 2020. He intercepted 4 passes and recorded 3 sacks and 2 forced fumbles in just a six game schedule for USC. Hufanaga likely moved himself from a potential UDFA to a day 2 pick in the NFL Draft in a Pac-12 season that almost didn’t happen. If the Saints elect to spend their second round pick on a safety, it is quite likely Hufanga will still be there.

2021 Preview

The Saints secondary in 2021 might not look all that different from what we saw in 2020. If Marcus Williams is retained, then, barring any cap casualties, the entire starting secondary should be back next year, including nickel CBs C.J. Gardner-Johnson and Patrick Robinson. This should be encouraging for Saints fans, as the Saints pass defense was the best it has been in eight years. Unless Williams leaves, I would not expect the Saints to use a high draft pick on a defensive back, unless one of the older players is released in order to free up cap space. Look for this group to once again be very strong in 2021.

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