The Saints have a big problem at cornerback.
Veteran CB Janoris Jenkins has been released this offseason to create salary-cap space. New Orleans has not addressed the void in free agency, although several solid players remain available at the position.
They used a third-round draft choice on Stanford's Paulson Adebo, an exciting prospect who should be an immediate contributor. Defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, one of the league's best in slot coverage, is expected to take on some cornerback duties this season.
To make matters worse, perennial Pro Bowl corner Marshon Lattimore has been arrested this offseason, a transgression that could cause him to be suspended for the start of the season.
Lattimore is also coming into the final year of his contract. His next deal will put him among the NFL's highest-paid players at the position.
The rest of the team’s depth chart at cornerback includes erratic veteran Patrick Robinson and several first or second-year undrafted players like Keith Washington and Bryce Thompson.
Adebo has the instincts and athleticism to be an outstanding player but is bound to have growing pains as a rookie. Gardner-Johnson is best used around the defensive formation. Robinson and Williams are proven liabilities as full-time starters.
The Miami Dolphins have a big problem with their best cornerback. All-Pro CB Xavien Howard led the NFL with 10 interceptions and 20 passes broken last season, giving up less than 52% completion percentage when targeted.
It was the second time in the last three years that Howard, 28, led the league in interceptions. The 6’1” and 198-Lb defensive back has developed into one of the NFL's top cornerbacks since being selected in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft.
According to a Miami Herald report, Howard is unhappy with his current contract and skipped mandatory minicamp. He’s entering the third year of a contract that pays him an average of $15.1 million per season, the sixth-highest among all cornerbacks in the league.
Miami is reportedly fielding trade offers for their disgruntled corner, with the Saints being mentioned among potential suitors. Howard will be a $12.1 million cap hit for a team that trades for him, according to the current numbers from Spotrac.com.
The Dolphins are likely seeking a first-round draft pick, at minimum, from any team interested in Howard. Here are five New Orleans players who could also be involved in a deal that might lower their draft pick demand.
MARCUS DAVENPORT, DEFENSIVE END
Davenport, who turns 25 before the season opener, has been a disappointment because of recurring injuries. Selected 14th overall in the 2018 NFL Draft, he’s flashed the potential of a disruptive force but struggles with consistency and reliability.
The Saints picked up the fifth-year option on Davenport's rookie contract. He’ll count $4.3 million against the salary cap this season. That number will escalate to a $9.55 million hit in 2022. Trading Davenport would cause $2.1 million in dead cap this season, but another team would absorb his entire contract in 2022.
New Orleans showed faith in Davenport's potential by picking up his fifth-year option. However, the defensive end is a position of strength for the team that’s generated 145 sacks over the last three years.
First-round pick Payton Turner joins a loaded position that includes Davenport, perennial Pro Bowler Cameron Jordan, Carl Granderson, Tanoh Kpassagnon, and pass rusher Noah Spence.
Miami's pass defense ranked just 23rd in 2020. They tied the Saints with a league-high 18 interceptions but had a difficult time generating consistent pressure up front. Davenport would add a young and dynamic presence to a Miami front seven in need of a playmaker.
CAMERON JORDAN, DEFENSIVE END
The selection of Payton Turner raised some eyebrows for those who follow the Saints, given their other more pressing needs. Some believed that it indicated that the team was ready to move on from the oft-injured Davenport.
There were other rumblings that the Saints were eyeing up an eventual replacement for Cam Jordan, who is coming off a down year.
The 32-year-old Jordan had 7.5 sacks and 26 pressures in 2020, his lowest production in five years. He was often handled by a single blocker, rarely seen in his stellar ten-year career.
Jordan is one of the best players in franchise history and is just one year removed from a career-high 15.5 sacks and 49 pressures.
If the Saints believe that Jordan is on the downside of a great career, they may include him in a deal that would net them a star defensive back.
Jordan is in the middle of a complex contract that would have to be reworked in a potential trade. He would certainly add leadership and experience to the Dolphins' young defensive front.
Hungry to bounce back from a disappointing year by his standards, it seems unlikely that Jordan would be moved. The Saints host the Dolphins in a nationally televised game this season.
Would you want to be Jameis Winston playing against an angry Cam Jordan on the team that dealt him away?
TRE'QUAN SMITH, WIDE RECEIVER
Smith has been identified as a potential breakout candidate in a New Orleans offense that will have more deep opportunities with the strong-armed Winston or Taysom Hill replacing the retired Drew Brees.
Entering his fourth NFL season, Smith has averaged only 26 receptions for 370 yards per year. He has never been able to secure the Number 2 wideout job on a team desperate for a consistent, complementary threat to All-Pro WR Michael Thomas.
The 6’2” and 210-Lb. Smith struggles to get separation but is a downfield threat and terrific blocker at the position. He’ll have to hold off challenges from the dynamic Deonte Harris, Marquez Callaway, and explosive rookie seventh-round pick Kawaan Baker.
Miami's passing attack ranked just 20th in the league last season. Wideout Devante Parker and TE Mike Gesicki are outstanding receivers, but the Dolphins would like to give second-year QB Tua Tagovailoa more weapons.
The Dolphins drafted explosive Alabama WR Jaylen Waddle with the Number 6 pick of the draft. They also added WR Will Fuller this offseason. Fuller, like Smith, has struggled with injuries over his career.
LATAVIUS MURRAY, RUNNING BACK
Miami has invested little in the running back position, and it’s showed. The Dolphins ranked 22nd in rushing offense and 29th in average per carry in 2020. They ranked last in the NFL in both categories in 2019.
Third-year RB Myles Gaskin led the team with under 600 yards rushing last year. He’ll be joined by free-agent acquisition Malcolm Brown, but the Dolphins lack a featured back to take the pressure off Tagovailoa.
Thirty-one-year-old RB Latavius Murray has shown he can carry the workload of a featured back and would start for several teams. He’s rushed for 1,293 yards in two years in reserve duty for the Saints, averaging 4.4 yards/carry and scoring 11 touchdowns while recording three 100-yard outings.
The New Orleans offense revolves around the elite skills of RB Alvin Kamara, but Murray has provided a lethal 1-2 punch at the position. He’s a big back capable of picking up tough yards between the tackles, but also a capable receiver out of the backfield.
The Saints have good depth at running back. Versatile veteran Ty Montgomery had a 100-yard game in place of a sidelined Kamara and Murray last season.
Dwayne Washington, along with former undrafted backs Tony Jones Jr. and Stevie Scott III will compete on a deep depth chart.
MARSHON LATTIMORE, CORNERBACK
The only player on this list that would invoke an even player-for-player swap. It also wouldn't ease the questions that the Saints have at the position.
Lattimore, 25, is three years younger than Xavien Howard and every bit the shutdown corner. Lattimore has allowed under 52% completion percentage when targeted over the last two seasons and routinely locks down an opponent's top receiver.
Statistical comparisons are similar, with Lattimore having the advantage in age and Howard holding a significant edge in career interceptions. As far-fetched as this deal may sound, it could still make sense for both sides.
Miami is fielding trade offers because Howard has stated he’s unwilling to play on his current deal. New Orleans may be willing to renegotiate with Howard, something they would have to do if they wanted to keep Lattimore beyond 2021, anyway.
Both Howard and Lattimore will be among the NFL's highest-paid cornerbacks with their next cornerbacks.
Lattimore's age gives him a long-term upside. But, remember, he could be suspended to start the year.
The Saints face Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in their season opener. A daunting task with a fully armed defense, but especially so without Lattimore, suspended DT David Onyemata, and with a crew of unproven cornerbacks.
Miami, who signed CB Byron Jones to a big contract this offseason, is better equipped to absorb a Lattimore suspension to start the year. Especially if they believe that Howard could hold out into the regular season.
The Dolphins and Saints have engaged in player swaps recently. In 2015, New Orleans sent WR Kenny Stills to Miami in exchange for a third-round draft pick and LB Dannell Ellerbe. The Saints traded reserve, LB Vince Biegel, to the Dolphins in 2019 in exchange for LB Kiko Alonzo.
Unless it's Lattimore, New Orleans would still have to part with a draft choice or two if they want Xavien Howard.
However, including a player like Davenport, Murray, Smith, or even Cam Jordan would fill a need for the Dolphins and cost the Saints less draft capital.
Follow Bob Rose on Facebook or on Twitter @bobbyr2613.
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