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Saints Offseason Brief: Secondary

A unit that went from weakness to strength in 2017 looks to only get better in 2018

With the league year officially starting on Wednesday, I thought we’d wrap up this series as soon as possible so we can start covering the free agency moves the team makes.

First, a couple of pieces of unrelated news to this column, but that will be relevant to any Saints fan.

Longtime left tackle Zach Strief, the last remaining player from the team’s legendary draft class of 2006, announced his retirement on Monday. Strief spent all twelve years of his career with the Saints, and mentioned that he had considered retiring last offseason but wanted to make sure New Orleans had found a replacement. “One of the things that I kept thinking about last year was that there was no clear replacement on the roster. I knew if I was at home watching TV and Drew was getting hit and I felt like I could have helped, I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself.” Strief also said of Brees, “My greatest drive as a player was not to let you down.”

With Ryan Ramczyk playing so well at both tackle positions as a rookie, he’ll be a permanent fixture at Strief’s old right tackle spot, and the position is in good hands.

The second, and far more important, item, is that Tuesday morning, the Saints and Drew Brees finally resolved their contract impasse, as Brees agreed to a two-year deal worth $50 million, $27 million of which is guaranteed. It sounds like Brees had bigger options in free agency, but as he said from the start, he wasn’t planning to go anywhere else. Getting the contract done in time will allow the Saints to spread the $18 million in dead money from his voided contract over three seasons instead of having it all hit now. The extra $12 million could certainly help as they try to add some free agents who will push the team from Super Bowl contender into more better Super Bowl contender.

Now, onto the secondary– cornerbacks first, then safeties. Each unit is led by a very young player going into his second year– one future star and one who’s already a star. Let’s look at the latter first.

CORNERBACKS

2017 Players and Cap Information

Player Age 2017 Cap Hit 2018 Cap Hit Signed Through
Marshon Lattimore 22 $2,792,647 $3,490,809 2020 (TO for 2021)
Ken Crawley 25 $541,666 $631,668 2018 (RFA)
P.J. Williams 25 $816,654 $906,657 2018
Delvin Breaux 28 $619,000 N/A UFA
Sterling Moore 28 $900,000 N/A UFA
De’Vante Harris 25 $381,176 $650,000 2018 (RFA)
Justin Hardee 24 $410,294 $555,000 2018 (ERFA)
Arthur Maulet 25 $136,765 $555,000 2018 (ERFA)
Bradley Sylve 25 $21,600 $480,000 2018 (ERFA)

I could cite various statistics, rankings, and accolades Marshon Lattimore received to let you know how good he is, but if you’re reading this column, you likely know already. It’s rare for a rookie cornerback to be good; it’s rarer still for a rookie cornerback so young to be good; and it’s rarest of all for a cornerback playing in the NFL at age 21 to be so good. Lattimore will likely compete with Jalen Ramsey for the next ten years for the title of the NFL’s best cornerback. He’s a building block, and the Saints still have three years of him at a cost-controlled rookie deal, plus a fifth-year option in their favor. (The fifth-year option for top-10 picks is the average of the ten highest salaries at the position, but for other first-round picks, it’s the average of the third- through 25th-highest salaries. Lattimore was picked 11th. The difference this year is almost $13 million for the former vs. about $8.5 million for the latter.) And if Lattimore gets anything but the biggest cornerback deal in league history to that point when it’s time to extend him, I’ll be very surprised. Either that or it means he got seriously injured. Please, God, please, please don’t let him get seriously injured.

My favorite Lattimore tidbit from last season: He managed to shut down Mike Evans for three games despite only playing him twice. You might remember that Evans got so frustrated with him during their first matchup that he took a cheap shot at Lattimore’s back well after the play ended, earning himself a one-game suspension.

Ken Crawley found his way in the starting lineup in weeks 3 and 4 due to a Lattimore injury and then a P.J. Williams suspension, and then he never left it. He played well, finishing #32 in the NFL1000 cornerback rankings, a fine slot for a second cornerback. He’s young enough that he should still get better. There’s still a chance the team upgrades at the position, though– more on that in a bit.

P.J. Williams finally stayed healthy enough for a full season and was serviceable, if not particularly good. One reason I suspect the Saints will look to upgrade at the position is that a depth chart with another good starter opposite Lattimore, moving Crawley to the #3 position, looks even better than it does now– and with the degree to which teams use three wide receivers on offense these days, having three good cornerbacks would leave the defense with no potential mismatches there.

Delvin Breaux has the talent to be that cornerback, as he showed in 2015 and 2016, but unfortunately he hasn’t been able to stay healthy. He hits free agency after missing the entire 2017 season. If the Saints make an effort to bring him back, it will likely be on a cheap deal contingent on performance or health. I don’t know if they will, though– even though he can be good when healthy, at a certain point, if you start planning a roster around oft-injured players, you’re really planning around whoever their backups are.

Sterling Moore is a competent fourth cornerback, but also someone the team is unlikely to bring back unless they suffer a spate of injuries.

Arthur Maulet and Justin Hardee are both special teamers who played well in those roles last year. Both started the season on the practice squad before being called up during the year. I wouldn’t be surprised to see something similar happen again, or to see one of both of them make the team as special teamers. (Hardee is likely the favorite after he blocked a punt against Tampa Bay in week 9 and returned it for a touchdown.)

And then there’s De’Vante Harris. Seemingly a coach’s favorite, he started the year in the starting lineup before getting burned regularly in the first two weeks. Ken Crawley took over, and Harris didn’t see significant playing time on defense again until week 12, when injuries moved him back into the lineup against the Rams. He promptly got burned regularly again, and was cut after the game and assigned to the practice squad. I have no idea what the team intends to do with him, but I don’t see much reason to be optimistic about giving him more defensive snaps.

Bradley Sylve joined the practice squad last season after being released by the Buffalo Bills, and most likely seems like a candidate for that again this year.

With Breaux likely gone and the team not wanting to rely on Harris or Moore (at least, I wouldn’t), there’s talk of the Saints looking at adding a veteran cornerback in free agency. Malcolm Butler was linked to the team last offseason and discussed as part of the Brandin Cooks deal, though the team ultimately went a different direction (which in my opinion was the better direction). Butler is a free agent now, and after being benched for the Super Bowl, is clearly done with New England. He’s a possibility. (EDIT: He was a possibility– a few minutes after we went to press, news broke that Butler signed with the Tennessee Titans.)

Another recent rumor going around is Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, recently released by the Giants. The two time Pro Bowler still has valuable ball-hawking skills, with 30 career interceptions, although he fell out of favor in New York last season. (The again, pretty much all the cornerbacks fell out of favor at some point or another in a disastrous season that revealed then-head coach Ben McAdoo to be in over his head.) DRC will be 32 next season, but the former first-round pick still has the talent and athleticism to be a solid starter. Plus, if this is true, I definitely want this guy on my team:

If the Saints add one of these two cornerbacks, they’ll have one of the best trios in the league.

Last note: The real prize of this year’s free-agent cornerback class is Trumaine Johnson, but he’ll probably be too expensive for the Saints to pursue.

SAFETIES

2017 Players and Cap Information

Player Age 2017 Cap Hit 2018 Cap Hit Signed Through
Marcus Williams 21 $1,134,625 $1,418,281 2020
Vonn Bell 23 $902,975 $1,083,354 2019
Kenny Vaccaro 27 $5,676,000 N/A UFA
Rafael Bush 31 $695,000 N/A UFA
Chris Banjo 28 $1,050,000 $1,800,000 2018

Marcus Williams turns 22 two days after the season starts, but if I start making exceptions for players in how I list their ages, where do I stop? Anyway, though Williams is more nationally famous for his failed tackle on Stefon Diggs in the NFC Divisional game, he was tremendous all season, grading as a top-10 rookie by Pro Football Focus and as Bleacher Report’s #11 free safety on the year in their NFL1000 rankings project. Most rookies, especially young ones, take time to adjust, but Williams has already shown tremendous range and athleticism, and enough nose for the ball to come up with four interceptions on the year. He’s a remarkable player and a remarkable value at a position that was loaded in the draft. The fact that he’ll be hitting his prime late into his second contract suggests how much room he still has to grow. He should be manning the free safety position for a long time, and reasonably could end up one of the league’s best free safeties. (I’m not saying he can be an Earl Thomas clone, but I’m not not saying that, either.)

Vonn Bell had a mixed year; though he was mostly capable in a range of roles, he also didn’t grade particularly well by most standards, a little disappointing considering the Saints traded up for him. Still, he’s there for at least two years, and I imagine the Saints will use him in more of a strong-safety role. Even if new signing Kurt Coleman crowds into his playing time, Bell should still have an opportunity to grow.

Kenny Vaccaro just wrapped his five-year rookie contract with the Saints, where he tended to fit best as a strong safety who could play a linebacker role in nickel coverages and the like (see, for example, how they used him in coverage on Jarvis Landry against Miami). While I thought the team might be interested in re-signing him, the addition of Kurt Coleman almost certainly precludes that.

Rafael Bush has been a solid third or fourth safety for some time now. I don’t know if the depth chart is too crowded to bring him back or not. At his age, I don’t imagine the team would be willing to spend much on him, but he could still be valuable at that price.

Chris Banjo was a surprise survivor of the 53-man roster cut last year due to his special teams play. He lived up to expectations there and even came up with an interception on defense when he had to fill in due to injuries. He might have played well enough to entrench himself as the team’s fourth safety, making Bush expendable. Banjo’s cap hit is a little high, but the team having its two returning starters on rookie deals mitigates that a lot.

New Signings for 2018

Player Age 2018 Cap Hit Signed Through
Kurt Coleman 30 $6,000,000 (estimated) 2020
Mykkele Thompson 25 $480,000 2018 (ERFA)
Rickey Jefferson 23 $480,000 2018 (ERFA)

The details on Kurt Coleman’s contract aren’t yet readily available, but it’s been reported as a three-year, $18 million deal. The cap hit is probably not accurate; the Saints tend to distribute the cash in their contracts in such a way to make the cap hits smaller up front. This is particularly likely to be true for a player like Coleman, whose contract’s annual value is far larger than any he’s signed previously. I imagine the Saints will structure it so there’s not as much cost up front (particularly since at the time of signing, they didn’t know how the Drew Brees situation would play out), with a chance to get out of it relatively cheaply if he doesn’t perform up to expectations.

Coleman has been a decent player, if a journeyman; he started in Philadelphia for two of his four seasons there before moving to Kansas City for a year and then Carolina. With 11 interceptions his first two years with the Panthers, he might well provide a little more juice to the Saints’ ability to generate turnovers, though he didn’t record a single interception in 2017. He’s primarily listed as a free safety, but of course, Williams’ range puts him firmly entrenched there. I suspect Coleman will either fill Kenny Vaccaro’s hybrid role, or more likely, will serve as a secondary safety that lets Vonn Bell fill that role. Either way, I don’t see how the team can afford to bring Vaccaro back.

Mykkele Thompson was a former fifth-round pick of the New York Giants, who ultimately only appeared in one game for them due to injuries. He signed a reserve/future contract in January, and while I imagine he’ll be given a chance to make the roster, his health will be the first factor in determining what kind of shot he has. He might still be a candidate for the practice squad, although all of his three seasons in the league so far have ended on Injured Reserve. (Perhaps getting away from the Giants, who have consistently been one of the most oft-injured teams in football in the last four or five years, will help in that regard.)

Rickey Jefferson played college football at LSU and might be better known to Louisianians as Jordan Jefferson’s brother. He also signed a futures contract but seems likely to be a training camp body.

The team might add more training-camp bodies at the position, but it seems like Coleman will be the only major move they make at safety this year. (I suppose it’s possible a player they like too much to pass up falls to them in the draft, but I’m trying to make projections based on the current roster, not on unforeseeable factors.)

So that’s the status of the Saints roster heading into free agency and the draft. Free agency officially begins on Wednesday, and we’ll see some more dominoes fall quickly in the first few days. We’ll cover any moves the Saints make, after the initial noise dies down, we’ll start looking at some potential draft moves for New Orleans.

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