Cornerback Marshon Lattimore helped transform the New Orleans Saints defense when he was selected with the 11th overall pick in the 2017 draft out of Ohio State. He quickly established himself as a shutdown corner, earning a Pro Bowl berth, and winning the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2017.
Lattimore's ability to consistently take an opponent's best receiver out of the game one-on-one has allowed the New Orleans defense to be more aggressive with its coverage packages. He has allowed under 53% completion percentage when targeted over the last two seasons and has 10 interceptions and 55 pass breakups in his four-year career.
The addition of veteran CB Janoris Jenkins late in the 2019 season gave the Saints one of the league's best tandem of cornerbacks. Jenkins tied for the team lead with 3 interceptions last season and allowed less than 59% completion percentage when targeted. New Orleans released the talented Jenkins late last week because of salary cap issues, opening up a big need at cornerback heading into the offseason.
Defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson is the team’s top coverage option in the slot and has been outstanding, but has several other defensive responsibilities. Backup cornerbacks P. J. Williams, Ken Crawley, and special teams ace Justin Hardee are also headed towards free agency, which officially begins on March 17.
Several talented cornerbacks will be available, including a potential return of Jenkins on a cheaper contract. Here are some of the best options to watch that fit the team's coverage schemes.
Gareon Conley (25 - Texans)
Casey Hayward (31 - Chargers)
William Jackson III (27 - Bengals)
Kevin Johnson (29 - Browns)
Kevin King (26 - Packers)
Patrick Peterson (31 - Cardinals)
Richard Sherman (33 - 49ers)
(Age and previous team in parentheses)
A former teammate of Lattimore's at Ohio State, Conley was the 24th overall selection in the 1st round of the 2017 draft by the Oakland Raiders. After struggling his first two seasons, he was traded to Houston in 2019. He revitalized his career with the Texans, allowing less than 53% completion percentage when targeted in eight games before missing 2020 with an ankle injury. Conley is much better in man coverage, a great fit for coordinator Dennis Allen's defensive philosophy.
Hayward, recently released by the Chargers, is a former Pro Bowler expected to attract heavy interest on the market. He allowed less than 50% completion percentage when targeted in 2020 and has 23 interceptions, 100 passes defended, and 3 touchdowns in his nine-year career.
Jackson is a former 1st round choice, 24th overall in 2016, out of the University of Houston. After a rocky start to his career, he’s allowed less than 59% completion percentage in each of the last three seasons. Jackson grew up in the Gulf Coast region of Texas and continues to be heavily involved in that region.
Johnson is another former first-round pick, selected 16th overall in 2015 out of Wake Forest. He struggled early on as an outside corner, but was a better fit as a nickel back and in slot coverage. Johnson has just one career interception, but allowed less than 62% completion percentage over the last two seasons.
King is a bigger corner (6’3”, 200-Lbs) who excels in off coverage more than man-to-man. Five of his six career interceptions came in 2019, when he broke up 15 passes and showed the potential Green Bay coveted when they selected him in the 2nd round of the 2017 draft.
Sherman was linked to New Orleans earlier this offseason. He earned the sixth Pro Bowl of his ten-year career as recently as 2019, but injuries limited him to just five games last season. Sherman has 36 career interceptions, 115 passes defended, and 3 defensive touchdowns. Kris Richard, the new Saints defensive backs coach, coached Sherman in Seattle from 2011 to 2017. The two helped form the NFL's most dominant secondary during that period and helped the Seahawks to a Super Bowl XLVIII championship.
Many New Orleans fans would love to see the team sign former LSU star Patrick Peterson, an eight-time Pro Bowler with the Arizona Cardinals. While Peterson is still a very good player, he is likely to command elite cornerback salary on the open market. Unless he’s willing to come to New Orleans and play for a contender at a lesser salary, this will not happen.
I expect the Saints to address the cornerback position early in the draft where there are several blue-chip prospects available. The skill sets of William Jackson, Casey Hayward, and Gareon Conley are also great fits for the New Orleans defense if they look to add a veteran starter and can do so at a reasonable cost.