The last defensive preview for the New Orleans Saints is all about the last line of the defense, otherwise known as the safeties.
Since 2006, the Saints have had some really good safeties come through their building. Most notably, Darren Sharper set the bar for his 2009 performance, which helped fuel the Saints to a 13-3 record, and most importantly their first ever Super Bowl. As a group however, there has been some opportunity over the past two seasons. 2016 looks to be the year where it all changes back to the status quo.
Here’s who the Saints have competing for at least five spots this season. Arguably, at least three of them are already spoken for.
Kenny Vaccaro, 4th season
You’d have a hard time convincing anyone that Kenny Vaccaro isn’t the anchor for the Saints safety spot. Vaccaro had a rebound season after a dismal 2014, and ended up appearing in 99.7 percent of the team’s defensive snaps last season. He was more than effective, returning to a role of prominence for the Saints defense. It’ll be very interesting to see how Dennis Allen plans on using the fourth-year player, as it’s widely expected that he’ll be a ‘free roamer’ when the Saints install their 3-safety sets.
Jairus Byrd, 8th season
I had plenty to say about Jairus Byrd in my training camp player watch column on Monday. In summary, this is a make or break season for the veteran. The pressure is on for Byrd to prove that the Saints didn’t make a poor $54 million investment, but that’s going to be a hard mountain to climb. Arguably, the Saints haven’t had a free safety impact since Malcolm Jenkins left. Byrd must stay healthy, and he’s going to be an integral part of the team’s safety shift. The former All-Pro could be seeing his last days in black and gold if he doesn’t get it together.
Roman Harper, 11th season
The return of Roman Harper is something the Saints desperately needed. The drastic loss of leadership on the defensive side of the ball after the 2013 season proved to everyone that you can’t exactly put a price tag on some things. Head coach Sean Payton essentially said that Harper is a lock for the team’s roster, and you should believe that there’s something left in the tank for the 33-year-old. Harper has implemented teachings to the younger players, and hasn’t lost a step in the smack talking department.
Alden Darby, 1st season
It’s safe to say that you probably don’t know much about Alden Darby even though he’s been on the New Orleans Saints practice squad since last September. The 5-foot-10 safety out of Arizona State served previous stints with the Pittsburgh Steelers and San Diego Chargers practice squad before joining the black and gold. In June, Darby was called the life of the team’s locker room in a column by The Advocate’s Joel Erickson. He even refused payment for giving Roman Harper back his old number. As far as football, we’ll just have to see what he can bring to the table over the next month.
Vonn Bell, Ohio State
At the time, it might not have made sense to everyone why the Saints traded up to draft Vonn Bell. However, the vision became clearer after hearing about what the team was wanting to do under Dennis Allen in 2016. The Saints get a player that was dominant for the Ohio State Buckeyes, receiving high marks for his range and ball skills. Ultimately, we see Vonn Bell as the player that can turn back the clock for the defense. Something to keep an eye on is how Jairus Byrd fares in camp, and I wouldn’t even be shocked if Bell is the starter in Week 1 against the Oakland Raiders.
Erik Harris, Hamilton Tiger-Cats
Erik Harris is one of my top Saints to watch as we roll into training camp. He’s definitely a front-runner to make the final 53-man roster as the team’s fifth option at safety. Having a familiar partner in crime in Delvin Breaux could help fast track Harris’ learning curve to the NFL. There’s a lot to love about what Harris did in the CFL, as he was a top prospect heading into the offseason. Harris is a hybrid style of defender, being listed as a defensive back for the Tiger-Cats but lining up as a linebacker.
Trae Elston, Ole Miss
If you were to ask me about one player on the roster that no one would particularly mention to make the Saints final roster, then I’d respond with Trae Elston. You want players that have something to prove and ultimately stay hungry, and Elston is one such player. Being the underdog is something he’s used to.
"“That’s how I was in high school, and once I went to Ole Miss nobody thought I would make it and they said I was too small to play safety. I made the plays, and I made some big hits. It’s all about your heart and not about what people say. You can’t listen to that.”"
Elston has the love and support from the Ole Miss faithful, and should turn some heads with solid work ethic over the next month.