The New Orleans Saints have struggled with blown coverages, missed assignments, poor communication, and mind-numbing penalties in their secondary throughout the first portion of the 2020 season. Pro Bowl CB Marshon Lattimore has been inconsistent, and the depth behind him and fellow starter Janoris Jenkins has been vulnerable in man coverage.
While the Saints cornerbacks have at least had some decent moments, awful play at the safety position is becoming an even bigger concern with each week.
Free safety Marcus Williams, who was an All-Rookie selection in 2017 and had a big interception against Tampa Bay on opening day, has deteriorated into a huge liability. He continues to take poor tackling angles, allowing opposing ball carriers bigger gains.
Even worse, he has been torched for big pass plays and been a magnet for crippling penalties every week. As the last line of defense, Williams' poor decisions on the back end have led to easy scores by opponents and have caused the Saints to have to win in shootouts with an injury-riddled offense.
Thirty-two-year-old S Malcolm Jenkins was brought back to New Orleans during the offseason to bring veteran leadership to the secondary and help limit big plays against the defensive backfield. He has done neither. Opposing tight ends have had their way with Jenkins, whose coverage skills have regressed badly. He has also been responsible for several coverage breakdowns when in deep coverage, along with Williams, inexcusable for a player with his experience.
New Orleans has little to no answers on their roster for their problems at safety. Chauncey Gardner-Johnson could see more snaps here, but he is also the defense's best slot coverage option. P.J. Williams showed promise as an injury replacement for Marcus Williams in two games last year and excels in off-ball coverage, but he’s played just 26 snaps in the last two games and has also struggled with coverage duties.
The Saints could look to swing a deal before the league’s November 3rd trade deadline. I suggested exactly that last week when identifying Harrison Smith or Anthony Harris of the Vikings as potential targets. If New Orleans cannot swing a trade, some options are still available on the free-agent market. Here are six free agents I think could upgrade this team's safety play.
Bethea began his career as a sixth-round draft choice in 2006 with the Indianapolis Colts. He was a Pro Bowl starter for a 2009 Colts team that lost to the Saints in Super Bowl XLIV. The 14-Yr veteran has 25 career interceptions, 9 forced fumbles, and 7 fumble recoveries. He can play either safety spot and last saw action in 2019 with the New York Giants, intercepting a pass, recovering two fumbles, and leading the team in tackles.
Bethea appeared to lose a step last season, leading the Giants to move on from him in the offseason in favor of younger options. The 36-Yr old Bethea may no longer be a viable option in man coverage but is a proven playmaker with exceptional intellect and a solid tackler as an off the ball safety.
HA HA CLINTON-DIX
Clinton-Dix came into the league as the 21st overall selection by the Green Bay Packers in the 2014 draft. A more natural fit at free safety, he can play either spot and has 16 career interceptions with 8 fumbles either forced or recovered. The 27-Yr old Clinton-Dix last played for the Chicago Bears in 2019, allowing a 59.1% completion percentage with one score when targeted and intercepting two passes.
After signing as a free agent with the Cowboys this offseason, he was surprisingly released in training camp. Clinton-Dix has terrific range and has never missed a game in his six-year career.
The 28-Yr old Jefferson played his first four seasons with the Arizona Cardinals after entering the league undrafted. He moved on to the Baltimore Ravens in 2017, where he played until an ACL ended his 2019 season after just five games. A natural free safety, Jefferson has four interceptions and has been credited with 22 passes broken up through his seven-year career.
He’s given up a 60% completion percentage when targeted over the last two years and was one of the league's highest-graded safeties in pass coverage according to Pro Football Focus in 2018, his last full season. Jefferson visited the Indianapolis Colts two weeks ago and has garnered heavy interest throughout the league, but remains unsigned.
Jones is a two-time Pro Bowler who was surprisingly released by the Miami Dolphins this offseason and has openly contemplated retirement. At one time the league's highest-paid defensive back, the 32-Yr old Jones has played his entire ten-year career with the Dolphins.
He has 21 career interceptions, 6 defensive touchdowns, 3 forced fumbles, 7 fumble recoveries, and 10.5 sacks. Jones has an excellent range as a deep safety, is physical near the line of scrimmage, and is an outstanding tackler in the open field.
Reid is a popular pick among Saints fans, after an outstanding career with LSU before joining the 49ers as the 18th overall pick in the 2013 draft. The 28-Yr old Reid has the range to play free safety but has excelled more at strong safety in recent seasons.
After spending his first four years with San Francisco, he’d spent the last three with the Carolina Panthers, leading them in solo tackles and finishing second in tackles for loss in 2019. Reid has 11 career interceptions, 3 forced fumbles, and 5 fumble recoveries, and had one of his best seasons last year with Carolina.
The biggest name still available in free agency, Thomas was released after one season with the Baltimore Ravens because of some off the field incidents and on-field issues with teammates. The 31-Yr old Thomas showed that he could still play at a high level in 2019, earning a Pro Bowl bid after an Achilles injury brought an end to his storied career with the Seattle Seahawks the year before. He is a seven-time Pro Bowler who has 30 interceptions, 12 forced fumbles, and 6 fumble recoveries in his 10-Yr career.
Thomas doesn't have quite the range he did when he was the league's best safety, but still has outstanding play recognition and excellent tackling ability. His skills aren't in question, but character concerns should be a major red flag, even for a strong locker room such as New Orleans.
Many experts expected the Saints to have one of the league's better secondaries this season. Cornerback depth and consistency from their talented starters is a concern and still may be addressed before the trade deadline. However, the poor play that the defense has gotten at safety must immediately be addressed, either by trade or free-agent pickup, if the Saints have any chance to be a legitimate contender in 2020.