The 2021 season for the Saints defensive backfield was defined by the strong rookie season of third round pick Paulson Adebo and the development of Chauncey Gardner-Johnson into one of the best nickels in the NFL. Stalwarts Marshon Lattimore, Marcus Williams, and Malcolm Jenkins also had strong seasons as expected, but this was certainly a transition year for the Saints DBs. Adebo’s season should be reassuring for Saints fans following the loss of Janoris Jenkins in the 2021 offseason, as it looks like the Saints have already found their replacement at CB2.
The defensive backs remained relatively injury free this season, especially when compared to the rest of the roster, as Chauncey Gardner-Johnson was the only player to miss more than one game among the starters. Despite this, Gardner-Johnson still managed to grab 3 interceptions, tied for the team lead, and also register 2 sacks. Also worth recognition is the year P.J. Williams had, as he also managed to pick off 3 passes and record a pair of sacks. Lattimore was named to his third straight Pro Bowl, a game in which he managed to intercept a Justin Herbert pass and set up a touchdown drive for the NFC.
C.J. Gardner Johnson-CB/S-626
Upcoming Free Agents
Marcus Williams will once again be up for a new contract this offseason, as the Saints used the franchise tag last offseason to retain him for 2021. The Saints are way over the salary cap, and will have to really do some work in order to afford Williams’s market value. Most of the fanbase and front office should want Williams back, as he is one of the best young safeties in the NFL, but unfortunately this may have been the last time we see Williams in New Orleans. He is expected to be one of the most highly coveted free agents of this class, as many rebuilding teams with cap space to spare need help at safety. It is possible for Williams to be franchise tagged again, as the other high profile free agent on the roster, Terron Armstead, is unable to be tagged due to the way his contract is structured. If the Saints decide to franchise tag Marcus Williams, they should still be on the lookout for his replacement this offseason.
P.J. Williams has been a very good rotational player in the Saints defensive backfield ever since being drafted in 2015. He set his career high for interceptions in 2021, including a 40-yard pick 6 to ice the game against Tom Brady and the Bucs in Week 8. Brining back P.J. Williams will be much more affordable than retaining Marcus Williams, but it is possible P.J. may want to test the market to see how he is valued after a career year. His versatility will be a plus on the open market, as he is able to play both corner and safety. Williams has only improved as his career has gone along, and the Saints should seriously consider bringing him back, especially if Marcus Williams moves on.
Potential Free Agent Targets
New Orleans native Tyrann Mathieu will be unrestricted free agent this offseason, and could be a potential target to replace Marcus Williams if he can be signed for the right price. We know it wouldn’t take much convincing to get Mathieu to come to New Orleans, but the money will be the biggest issue when coming to a deal with the Honey Badger. Mathieu would be a big get for the Saints if he chooses to return to his hometown, as he is coming off yet another Pro Bowl season, but creating enough cap space to afford his services will be a challenge for the front office.
If they make me choose imma choose to take it back to where it all started.— Tyrann Mathieu (@Mathieu_Era) June 9, 2021
McLeod is one of just five remaining starters from the Eagles Super Bowl team in 2017, and could be the Saints most affordable option on the free agent market if they are looking for a new starting safety. McLeod will not have as high an asking price as a player like Mathieu, and if the Saints elect to replace Marcus Williams via free agency they may look to recreate the Eagles Super Bowl winning tandem of McLeod and Malcolm Jenkins.
Potential Draft Targets
Hill is coming off his best season in college for the Big Ten champion Wolverines, a year in which he was named first team All-Big Ten. Hill grabbed 2 interceptions on top of 69 tackles and 8 passes defensed, and is the #2 safety prospect on most draft boards. Hill is a great athlete but needs some work in coverage, but regardless of his issues he is likely to be the best safety on the board when the Saints are on the clock in the first round.
Daxton Hill is really good at football. pic.twitter.com/0G4o0Gz2AP— Woodward Sports Network (@woodwardsports) October 10, 2021
Verone McKinley III-S-Oregon
If the Saints elect to draft a pure ball hawk at safety in an effort to replace Marcus Williams, Oregon product Verone McKinley III might be their best bet. McKinley picked off 11 passes in his three year career at Oregon, including six in 2021. McKinley is a good tackler for a free safety as well, registering 77 tackles in 2021, 44 of them being solo. McKinley is a mid round pick on many draft boards at the moment, and could be an intriguing prospect in rounds 3-4 for the Saints.
What a play by Verone McKinley. Running left, but dives in the air to get a hand on the ball and prevent the TD. Incredible body control pic.twitter.com/rxFvr3IxU8— Billy M (@BillyM_91) October 23, 2021
The Saints defensive backfield in 2022 much like 2021 will be defined by whether or not they are able to keep Marcus Williams. The development of Paulson Adebo is a good sign and Marshon Lattimore isn’t going anywhere for a while. 2022 will be a prove it season for both Adebo and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson. Adebo must prove that he is a solid starting corner like he showed in 2021, and Gardner-Johnson must prove that he is one of the top nickels in the NFL like he was in 2021. If both keep it up in 2022 the Saints may have one of the better young sets of corners in the NFL.
The safety position is much more of a question mark. If Williams leaves the Saints do not have the money to bring in a high level replacement, and this class of safeties is quite shallow after Notre Dame’s Kyle Hamilton. The splash move would be to trade up into the top 5 and take Hamilton, but I feel the Saints may save their draft capital to trade for an established player rather that trading up in the draft. Either way, Marcus Williams’s future will be one of the bigger storylines for the Saints heading into the 2022 offseason.
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