Saints Offseason Preview: Cornerback
The New Orleans Saints entered the 2019 season with arguably more talent than the franchise has ever had at the cornerback position. After a good first half of the year, the unit tailed off down the stretch. For the year, the New Orleans pass defense ranked 20th in the league and gave up an average of 242 yards per game. This position is swirling with questions as the Saints enter a crucial offseason still in pursuit of their second Super Bowl championship. Today we have a look at the state of the position for New Orleans.
Free Agents: Eli Apple, P.J. Williams, Justin Hardee (restricted)
Under Contract: Janoris Jenkins, Marshon Lattimore, Patrick Robinson
Third-year defensive back Marshon Lattimore earned his second Pro Bowl bid with another standout performance in 2019. Lattimore missed some time with a hamstring injury this season but allowed just 50% completion percentage against his coverage while surrendering only 3 touchdowns and intercepting a pass in 14 regular season contests. The 23-Yr old Lattimore is one of the most complete corners in the game today, capable of locking on to the opponent’s top wideout and taking him out of the game.
Only three players with more passes defended than Lattimore’s 44 since his entrance to the league. His rookie deal will expire at season’s end, but the club could exercise a fifth-year option while they negotiate a long-term deal that could make him the highest paid defensive back in the league.
Lattimore’s running mate at cornerback coming into the year was the 24-Yr old Eli Apple. The 10th overall pick in the 2016 draft by the New York Giants, Apple was acquired by New Orleans in an early season trade in 2018. He proved to be the perfect compliment to Lattimore over the first half of the year, as the two shut down some of the more talented receiving corps in the NFL.
Apple suffered a knee injury during a mid-season win at Chicago that may have affected his mobility down the stretch of the year as he struggled with penalties and coverage responsibilities. He allowed quarterbacks to complete 63% of their passes against his coverage and surrendered just two touchdown passes on the year. Apple is an unrestricted free agent and will attract some high-priced interest on the open market, making his return to New Orleans questionable.
Neither P.J. Williams nor Patrick Robinson could adequately provide consistent coverage from the slot or outside positions during the 2019 season. Williams was better in the slot and was one of the better tacklers in the secondary, but surrendered five touchdown passes and 65.6% completion percentage. Both players were a coverage liability and heavily targeted by opponents when in the game.
Williams is an unrestricted free agent, while I expect the Saints to part ways with Robinson this offseason, freeing up over $3.6 million dollars in cap space. Restricted free agent Justin Hardee has been used sparingly at cornerback over his three years with the team, but may be brought back because of his outstanding special teams contributions.
New Orleans picked up eight year veteran Janoris Jenkins off waivers from the New York Giants late in the year to replace the injured Apple and ineffective Williams and Robinson. The Giants had released the talented Jenkins for off the field issues, but he remains one of the NFL’s better big-play defensive backs. The 31-Yr old played well in the final two regular season contests and was the Saints best defensive player in their first-round playoff loss to the Vikings, effectively shutting down Minnesota wideout Stefon Diggs.
Jenkins is under contract through the conclusion of this season, but is scheduled to account for over $11.2M against the salary cap. He has the man-to-man coverage skills to match up with most of the league’s best receivers, while his 23 career interceptions and 8 defensive touchdowns are proof of his game breaking ability. Jenkins’ salary is comparable with some of the league’s top cornerbacks, but New Orleans may try to negotiate a new long-term deal or choose to release him for cap space.
What the Saints choose to do with Jenkins will dictate how highly they address the position this offseason. Keeping him gives the defense one of the best cornerback tandems in the NFL, but the team must still strengthen its depth with the potential losses of Apple, Williams, and Robinson. Rookie defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and safety Vonn Bell were both strong in slot coverage duties a season ago. Bell is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent though, and losing him would put Gardner-Johnson into more of a traditional safety role.
Kristian Fulton of LSU or Florida’s C.J. Henderson are two highly regarded prospects who could be available when the Saints first-round pick comes around. A free agent like Kansas City’s Bashaud Breeland, Carolina’s James Bradberry, or Jalen Mills of the Eagles would also be an upgrade at the third corner spot.
If the Saints move on from Jenkins then drafting a cornerback would become an even higher priority, but also makes adding a veteran free agent more likely. Jenkins would be one of the top free agents at the position if released from New Orleans, but Denver’s Chris Harris or Kendall Fuller of the Chiefs would also be Pro Bowl caliber additions. The Saints have also been rumored as a possible trade partner for Darius Slay of the Detroit Lions, who is considered one of the finest defensive backs in the NFL.
Wide receiver is one area of need identified by most when breaking down the New Orleans Saints roster. The cornerback position is another that may see a major turnover in personnel, as the Saints look to add a playmaking element to an already talented defense.