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Offseason Position Battle: Defensive Backs

We’ll also take a look at some moves the team has made in the last couple of weeks

Already, some of the predictions I’ve made for the Saints roster and the groups I’ve projected have been shaken up a little. The biggest moves are at wide receiver, where, since we last checked in, the Saints released Brandon Coleman and signed veterans Brandon Tate and Michael Floyd. Coleman was one of my projections for the final roster; although I wasn’t feeling particularly strong about retaining him, the fact that they signed him to a contract after he hit free agency meant, I thought, that the team was interested in retaining him. Coleman was released with a failed physical designation; there is a chance the team would be interested in re-signing him once he’s healthy, but I think it’s more likely that Tre’Quan Smith being further along than expected made Coleman redundant to the passing game.

Tate and Floyd will put pressure on Tommylee Lewis and Austin Carr for the final roster spots. Tate appears to be the early favorite for return duties, which would guarantee his spot. Floyd was once a 1000-yard receiver, all the way back in 2013, though his production declined over the next two years before his career went completely off the rails in 2016 and 2017. It’s possible he could be a reclamation project, but it’s equally likely that the team just won’t have room for him, with the top four receivers expected to be the integral parts of the passing game.

The Saints also let Terrance West go, thinning out the running back rotation; reports are that Jonathan Williams’ performance in camp and preseason has made him the favorite to pick up snaps and carries during Mark Ingram’s suspension. Pencil him in for a roster spot; I’d still expect Boston Scott and Trey Edmunds to make the team as well.

Now, we move on to defensive backs, where the Saints brought in four new bodies to try to shore up some of the question marks behind three good-to-great starters.

Currently on roster
Cornerback: Marshon Lattimore, Ken Crawley, Patrick Robinson, P.J. Williams, Natrell Jamerson, Kamrin Moore, Arthur Maulet, Justin Hardee, Linden Stephens, Marcus J. Williams, Robert Nelson
Safety: Marcus A. Williams, Kurt Coleman, Vonn Bell, Chris Banjo, Sharrod Neasman, J.T. Gray

Yes, I’m pretty sure the Saints brought in the other Marcus Williams just to create confusion for all their fans and writers in the preseason. The three entrenched starters, of course, are Marshon Lattimore (already with one Pro Bowl under his belt), Ken Crawley, and The Good Marcus Williams. Williams, in particular, is an underrated member of the trio and has a great chance to come out of nowhere and earn serious accolades. Lattimore’s own play often obscured the incredible range Williams displayed as a rookie free safety often left in single-high coverage, and while most of the public remembers Williams as the player who made the Minnesota Miracle possible, it was his play in part (including a key interception on Case Keenum) that made it possible for the Saints to come back in the first place. With another year under his belt, the second-youngest member of his draft class (he won’t turn 22 until the day before the Saints kick off their regular season) stands to build on those qualities; the sky’s the limit for Williams, who might well develop into the next Earl Thomas-type game-changing free safety.

Kurt Coleman was brought in to start alongside Williams, as his athleticism allows him to be a more versatile player and display more range than Vonn Bell, who seemingly will be moving into more of a role as a full-time box safety, filling the shoes of the departed Kenny Vaccaro. Chris Banjo is a valuable fourth safety and special-teams player; he should make the roster, but his spot here could be complicated by Natrell Jamerson (who played both cornerback and safety in college) and the sheer depth of numbers at cornerback, which is going to force some difficult decisions on New Orleans.

At cornerback, only three names are guaranteed their spots: Lattimore, Crawley, and Patrick Robinson, the big-ticket defensive back signing of the offseason. Robinson was a flop in his first stint in New Orleans, but after bouncing around the league for a couple of years, he found a home in Philadelphia, excelling as their slot cornerback in 2017. He’ll play the same role for New Orleans, as the Saints hope that wasn’t just a one-year wonder performance from him.

P.J. Williams carries the highest draft pedigree of anyone left, as a 2015 third-round pick. Unfortunately, missing nearly his entire first two seasons slowed his development; he played every game in 2017, but his performance as the nickelback was wanting enough that the Saints went out and signed Robinson. With the additions of Robinson, Jamerson, and Moore, Williams’ roster spot is likely in jeopardy.

Jamerson has experience at both cornerback and safety, but it’s the former where the Saints seem more interested in using him. He’s also got special teams experience in both coverage and return units. Moore has been quieter this preseason, but the Saints certainly saw something in him to draft him this year. Maulet and Hardee are former undrafted free agents who made serious impacts on special teams when given the chance, and they both have a strong shot of making the roster as well.

Everyone else– including the other Marcus Williams– are likely camp bodies. In a sigh of relief for Saints fans, De’Vante Harris, who could never translate his training camp performances into success on the field, was cut well before final roster decisions.

Roster Prediction
Safety: Marcus Williams, Kurt Coleman, Vonn Bell, Chris Banjo
Cornerback: Marshon Lattimore, Ken Crawley, Patrick Robinson, Natrell Jamerson, Kamrin Moore, Justin Hardee, Arthur Maulet

Eleven defensive backs is a lot to carry on a regular-season roster, and while I really don’t expect that to happen, the Saints could make it work if they only carry five receivers and go with eight offensive or defensive linemen. Part of the reason this works is that I already project them to only keep six linebackers; the larger linebacker crews of the past have often been a necessity for special teams play, but many of these defensive backs can fill those same roles in coverage and tackling.

I think seven of these players are locks. I couldn’t figure out who to cut between Banjo, Moore, Hardee, and Maulet. If the Saints are working Jamerson exclusively at cornerback, that seems to bode well for Banjo holding onto his spot. I tend to err on the side of teams being more committed to players they use draft capital on, but Maulet and Hardee have also proven themselves valuable special teams players over the last year. Admittedly, I’m kind of copping out with this call, because I simply don’t have enough information to determine who stands out among those final spots and who has fallen behind. (This is one area where you may want to trust the team’s beat writers.) I certainly can’t imagine all eleven will be regularly active on game day; this feels like a unit where eight or so players are active each game. Moore is the most likely, I think, to be inactive most weeks; the composition of the game day roster each week will depend on injuries, matchups, and which particular roles will be needed and emphasized.

The odd man out is P.J. Williams, who has the talent but has had his role usurped by Robinson and Jamerson and also has an injury history that makes him difficult to rely on. I’m sure New Orleans would like to keep him, but roster space is precious and at some point you have to go with guys you know will be available.

Next time: I don’t know exactly when the next column will be, but I do intend to have some more information on preseason games, perhaps another analysis of a position group, and a final 53-man roster prediction before the regular season starts.

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