Who will be the Saints' Nickel CB in 2020?
"When these teams go fast and they catch you on these personnel packages where you can't get out of it, can that guy just go out there and operate like a nickel corner? These guys can do that, the ones that we have, P.J. and C.J." Saints DB Coach Aaron Glenn
The New Orleans Saints have one of the best 1-2 CB punches in the NFC with CBs Marshon Lattimore and Janoris Jenkins. However, headed into the 2020 season, there is no clear cut starting slot CB for Aaron Glenn’s defensive backfield. Glenn has multiple players who are versatile enough to play multiple positions, Malcolm Jenkins, C.J Gardner-Johnson, and P.J Williams. Pair those CB/S hybrids with veteran CB Patrick Robinson, and the Saints are in good shape headed into training camp.
Gardner-Johnson, Williams, and Robinson all have experience playing in a nickel/slot role, but which is best suited for the #3 CB spot for the Saints in 2020?
Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, 2nd NFL Season
C.J Gardner-Johnson played nickel corner in his college career at the University of Florida before being drafted by the Saints last year. The former Gator showcased his versatility all over the field in 2019 and looked to be a tremendous draft day steal for the Saints. In his rookie campaign, Gardner-Johnson complied 49 tackles, 8 PBU, 1 INT, 1 FF, and 1 FR.
Saints DB Coach Aaron Glenn had high praise for Gardner-Johnson this offseason and expects him to spend a lot of time in the slot in 2020.
“[He needs to] get better in coverage because he will be playing a good amount of nickel-back for us in the slot. He’ll be covering top level receivers in the slot and we’re not afraid to put him in there and let him cover guys because he has that skill set.”
Garnder-Johnson's versatility and size allowed the Saints to toy with his position throughout his rookie season. Gardner-Johnson saw more time playing in the slot during the 2019 season between the production and health of safeties Marcus Williams and Vonn Bell. His instincts and play recognition make Chauncey a must play on every defensive snap. If Saints DC Dennis Allen wants a sure tackling and ballhawk of a DB, Gardner-Johnson is the perfect man to start in the slot this season.
P.J. Williams, 6th NFL Season
After missing the majority of his first two years in league with injuries, Williams has become a practical option for the Saints secondary. Williams has played in a reserve role for the Saints since his first full season in 2017. Over the past three seasons, the 2014 BCS National Championship Game Defensive MVP had totaled 151 tackles, 2 FF, 24 PD, 4 INT, and a pick-six.
“I know in baseball they have utility players, I’m don’t know if I’m saying that the right way, but P.J. can play safety for us and that’s either one, free or strong, he can play nickel, he can play the dime, and he can play corner for us. He’s a very valuable player for our defense and he hears coaches talk about position-less players and I see him being one of those guys.”
Williams proved his worth against Tennessee last season, filling in at Safety because of multiple injuries to the Saints DBs. He had never played a snap at Safety in his NFL career. Williams' impressive performance caught the eye of both Saints DC Dennis Allen and Saints DB Coach Aaron Glenn. One of the reasons why New Orleans chose to re-sign him was his versatility. Williams' physical tackling nature allows him to line up anywhere in the defensive backfield and play up into the box. Combine his skill set with 5 years under his belt, P.J could be a solution in the slot for the team.
Patrick Robinson, 11th NFL Season
P-Rob has seen the highs and lows as an NFL starter. As his career comes to its twilight, Robinson could have one last chance to shine with the Saints in 2020. After a bounce-back year in 2017 with the Super Bowl Champion Eagles, Robinson returned to New Orleans. The Saints drafted him in the first round out of FSU on a four-year, $20M contract. New Orleans projected Robinson to start in the slot each of the last two seasons before injuries.
Following two seasons of nagging injuries, Robinson finally had his chance to prove he could still produce in Week 16 against Tennessee last season. After a series of injuries to the secondary, Robinson stepped in to fill CB Eli Apple’s role. P-Rob finished the game with 5 tackles, all solo, and 1 PD.
In 2017, Robinson played a pivotal role in the Philadelphia Eagles' first Super Bowl victory. Just a few years removed from his best year as a pro, Robinson showed Saints coaches he was still a reliable nickel CB in limited action. The former 32nd Pick of the 2010 NFL Draft restructured his contract this offseason, taking a chance on himself. Robinson will serve as a veteran leader for inside CBs on the roster, but will lead by example as a starter?
The Saints' defensive backfield is full of versatility and talent. From the elite CB play of Marshon Lattimore, the ball-hawking skills of S Marcus Williams, and the leadership of S Malcolm Jenkins, the Saints DBs should be one of the better secondaries in football. While the question remains who will start at Nickel CB, fans can rest assured that the Saints have three viable options to fill that spot ahead of training camp.
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