As Saints Training Camp gets under way this Friday at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia, one of the hotter topics on Saints related / themed message boards has been what nickname to give their suddenly stellar defensive unit. Among some of the more popular names thrown out there have been “Domeland Security” (the big favorite amongst most fans),”The Wrecking Krewe’ (inspired by the New Orleans Mardi Gras) and “The Bayou Bullies” (my personal favorite). However, the one I actually had heard mentioned a few months back (it was actually originally coined some years ago by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) is one that I believe accurately depicts the transformation that has taken place with their rapidly ascending defense: “No-Fly Zone”, because of a secondary that might be the NFL’s best in 2014.
The Saints were very aggressive in their off-season approach to free agency; by giving their secondary a “makeover” which could be straight out of a Hollywood beauty salon. They added some significant pieces into the mix, and they’ll also return several players familiar with Ryan’s complex defensive scheme. They also achieved “addition by subtraction” with the release of veteran safeties Roman Harper and Malcom Jenkins, who both underperfomed during their repective last few seasons with the team. Here’s a quick look at the variety of key components that will comprise the “No-Fly Zone” Saints secondary of 2014.
The Returning Veterans
For all of the press that the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks (a.k.a. “The Legion of Boom”) got for being the NFL’s # 1 pass defense last season, the Saints pass defense itself last season was actually ranked second. That unit last season was led by the two returning players in 2014 that are will be the cornerstone of the “No-Fly Zone” secondary: second year strong safety Kenny Vaccaro (the Saints #1 draft pick in 2013) and New Orleans native CB Keenan Lewis.
Lewis of course was the centerpiece of Saints free-agency last year; after signing a five-year, $26.3 million deal to come home to New Orleans after having starred before that with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Lewis led the Saints with four interceptions in 2013, only his second in the NFL as a full-time starter. Even though he certainly played at a Pro Bowl level , he didn’t get selected to play in it – a carriage of injustice to be sure. Lewis was also the only member of the secondary to actually start all 16 regular season games.
After adding Lewis, the Saints then selected University of Texas All-American Kenny Vaccaro; who in my personal opinion as a long-time Saints fan, had the best Saints season for a defensive rookie since LB Rickey Jackson of the University of Pittsburgh, in 1981. (Jackson of course, only turned out to be the greatest Saints defender of all-time). The team’s first-round pick in 2013 tallied 79 total tackles, one sack, one interception and one forced fumble during his rookie season. Vaccaro missed four games (two regular season, two in the Playoffs) with injuries, and the team missed him greatly.
The Saints return two more holdovers who both will make significant contributions: returning nickel back Corey White, who came on to start the last six games and showed flashes of potential; and hard-hitting safety Rafael Bush, who played in 13 games and decided to stay with the Saints after they matched an offer sheet from the Atlanta Falcons. 2010 first round pick CB Patrick Robinson has not lived up to expectations however, and after missing all of last year with a knee injury; his future with the team is a bit murkier than the rest of the returning veterans.
The Free-Agency Additions
The marquee move the Saints made earlier in this off-season was the signing of the man considered to be the main attraction of the 2014 free-agency class: 27 year old former University of Oregon Ducks star and Buffalo Bills All-Pro free safety Jairus Byrd, who signed a 6 year, $54 million dollar contract. Byrd was the only good defender on what was a bad secondary in Buffalo, and even though he wound up missing five games, he still managed to always force turnovers whenever he was on the field. As a safety, he possesses what I’d refer to as a very high “field IQ”, and is always looking to make the big play.
Make absolutely no mistake about it: the reason Saints management (i.e. Mickey Loomis) signed him primarily is because he is a “ballhawk” — something that the Saints could have used (and definitely lacked) in 2013. The main thing that Byrd will contribute to this year’s defense most is that radar-like ability to create turnovers. The Saints only could muster a scant 19 turnovers in 2013, with 12 of them coming on interceptions. They were ranked 4th overall in yardage and points allowed, but rather average in the stat that truly matters in the NFL: turnover ratio.
Despite their rise from the depths of what had been one of the worst pass defenses in NFL history in 2012; the Saints to their credit did manage to force a lot of punts, but failed quite miserably in the battle for field possession. Byrd picked up 4 interceptions last year, (he had an incredible 9 of them as a rookie) so the potential to be able to force a lot of turnovers this coming season is certainly there. Just his mere presence alone, should discourage opposing QB’s from throwing the ball deep over the middle.
His ability to play deep will also free up Kenny Vaccaro to settle into a strong safety role he was actually drafted for; and let him play where he is best – matched up one on one against slot receivers and “in the box” against the run. Byrd’s addition essentially means that Vaccaro can continue to develop naturally as he gains more experience at the pro level, which of course will be very beneficial to the franchise for the rest of this decade and possibly beyond.
The team also added 15-year veteran cornerback Champ Bailey, who will no doubt someday be a future Hall-of-Famer. Bailey was signed after being released by Denver, where he had played for 10 seasons. Though Bailey is adamant that he still can perform at a high level and compete for the starting CB position on the side opposite of Lewis; I believe the Saints actually had in mind for him that at the very worst, he could come in and be a mentor to the younger players (including this year’s 2nd round pick CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste out of Nebraska).
Canadian League veteran Marcus Ball was signed soon after Byrd and Bailey, to provide depth behind both Vaccaro and Byrd. Ball can play both safety positions, and wasn’t in the CFL because he lacked talent. It was because of the hit his reputation had taken for the Florida State “cheating scandal” of 2007, and his subsequent suspension by the University of Memphis in 2010 that caused him to go undrafted by the NFL. Ball was a former high school All-American at linebacker (and can fill in at LB if needed), and also won a Grey Cup (the CFL’s version of a Super Bowl) with the Toronto Argonauts.
The Rookie Crop
2014 2nd round pick Stanley Jean Baptiste was rated among the top CB’s of the 2014 Draft class, even being projected to possibly go as high at the end of round #1. Baptiste is this era’s prototypical CB. He’s tall, lean, and has great ball skills. He’s quick and he’s also flexible. Baptiste is able to be physical at the point of contact when matched up against a big-bodied WR. Baptiste was actually a former wide receiver himself in high school, who switched to corner as a freshman at Nebraska.
Whenever Baptiste does see time as a rookie (though it may be in a limited role) in Rob Ryan’s defensive scheme, he won’t have to worry about not having any safety ‘help’; especially with the group of safeties that we now have). Baptiste will be allowed to do what he does the best: playing an aggressive “press” physical man-coverage, with a safety sitting right on the top. One national analyst even thinks Ryan will eventually turn Baptiste into an All-Pro at the position.
5th Round pick safety Vinnie Sunseri out of Alabama is positioned to be in the mix for a backup spot behind Vaccaro and Byrd; and like Marcus Ball is equally adept at playing both safety positions. He is also noted for being a “student of the game”, having been a coach’s son. Sunseri appears fully healed from the ACL injury that shortened his junior season at Alabama. Though many Saints observers (myself included) initially questioned the wisdom behind his being taken, Sunseri thus far has looked good enough to warrant that selection.
Also, a player to watch in Training Camp in my opinion will be Brian Dixon; the rookie UFDA out of Northwest Missouri State. Dixon, in my view, is talented enough to make the Saints’ final 53-man roster; and if not then certainly he’d be worthy of a place on the practice squad. He has extremely quick hips and feet, and is super fast (he ran an “unofficial” 4.34 at his Pro Day) with outstanding ball skills, The only real knock on him, as with his twin brother Brandon who went to the Jets, will be that they didn’t face top-caliber (as in the SEC or the PAC-12) Division 1 talent. Nevertheless, I’d say Dixon will make Patrick Robinson a bit nervous in these next several weeks.
The Position Coach
Saying that Rob Ryan was successful in turning around the Saints defense in 2013 would be an understatement, as the unit finished #4 overall and the top-ranked defense in yards allowed. But as Ryan himself would tell you, he didn’t do it alone. He had a little help from the man whom all of the Saints’ players lovingly refer to as “Coach CrimeDawg”. That man is none other than one of the brightest young defensive coaches in the game: Saints defensive secondary coach Wesley McGriff.
Wesley McGriff has successfully made the transition from college to the NFL; and it seemingly has been a smooth one. Mc Griff was personally recruited by Sean Payton upon his return from the Bountygate suspension, with input from Ryan. It’s pretty obvious that McGriff retains the undeniable passion in his coaching style; that in the college ranks garnered him the reputation as being one of Division I’s top defensive coaching assistants ( first at Vanderbilt and then at Ole Miss).
With that incredible amount of talent under his tutelage playing within Rob Ryan’s brilliant schemes, McGriff will likely cement his reputation even further as one of the game’s outstanding defensive coaches. He’s even been mentioned as a possible defensive coordinator candidate in the future, and maybe even a head coach down the line. For now in 2014 though, he has a very unique opportunity before him to take this current secondary and help mold it into one of the NFL’s very best.