A few days ago I broke down the Saints’ offense. If you’re feeling hungry for Saints news, give it a read. Let me know what you think. Either way, I’m now happy to present, drum roll, a breakdown of the defense on the final 53-man roster.
My basic take: the arrow’s pointing up. Granted it’d be hard for it to point down. The Saints could field the worst defense in the league and they’d still be hard pressed to under-perform last year’s squad. But if preseason promises mean anything in the regular season, the defense could be much improved this year.
Let me show you what I mean. Position by position, the Saints have reason for optimism.
Kenny Vaccaro, Jarius Byrd, Roman Harper, Vonn Bell, Erik Harris
Easily the most established group on the defense. The safety position is experienced and versatile. The team will likely delegate Roman Harper to a pressure and man-coverage role, but each of the other safeties will be able to contribute in multiple ways. Dennis Allen gets to be creative here.
Kenny Vaccaro in particular has played at a high level, making reads, tackles and breaking up passes. Most encouragingly this preseason, he’s demonstrated a mythic ability: covering tight ends. The Saints have struggled to cover tight ends for years. Vaccaro might be undersized for the task, but he’s physical enough to jam TEs at the line of scrimmage and athletic enough to stay tight in coverage. He had the TE assignment often last year, but looks to have finally developed a knack for it.
Roman Harper has flashed enough this preseason for the Saints to feel good about the reunion. He doesn’t appear to have lost too much athleticism, and continues to make excellent reads as a pressure player. Between Harper, Vaccaro, Bell, and even Byrd, expect the Saints to bring plenty of safety blitzes this year.
The rookie Vonn Bell has shown more potential than production so far, but I expect him to be a contributor early in the season. He plays with instinct and is the type of safety the Saints thought they were getting in Jarius Byrd. I don’t see him supplanting Byrd as a starter this year. But with his arrival and the emergence of CFL stand-out Erik Harris, Byrd certainly needs to make an impression to secure a roster spot for next season.
Harris plays the same FS position as Bell and Byrd, and has impressed so far. He’s made a few remarkable PBUs and seems to diagnose plays very well. He’s behind Bell on the first unoffical depth chart, but I could see him playing substantial snaps this year, particularly if there’s an injury. Having a player like Harris as safety depth is a luxury few teams have, and could help make Byrd expendable at the end of the year.
It may sound like I’m down on Byrd. In a way, I am; injured or not, he’s an expensive player that hasn’t lived up to expectations. But he’s still the best and most experienced FS on the team. I expect him to put together his best season as a Saint, and in all likelihood to earn a spot on the roster next year. He’s played particularly well in man coverage. That said, I’d like to see him diagnose plays more fluidly in single-high sets. We’ve yet to see him really make a play as that deep safety. He took a few bad steps against Pittsburgh, most notably on Antonio Brown’s 57 yard touchdown. If he can’t clean those up mistakes, Bell and Harris might see the field more regularly.
Delvin Breaux, P.J. Williams, De’Vante Harris, Ken Crawley, Sterling Moore
The cornerback position, conversely, is the least established group on defense. Behind Delvin Breaux, there’s simply no proven talent. But! There does seem to be talent. Much like Breaux last year, I expect this group to be challenged early and often. And, again like Breaux last year, I expect teams to find some early success against them. Keenan Lewis is gone, and between P.J. Williams, De’Vante Harris, and Ken Crawley, there isn’t a single regular season snap. Two went undrafted. The only other CB on the roster, Sterling Moore, will likely take some time to get up to speed with the team. I’d be surprised if he sees the field against Oakland. However talented Williams, Harris, and Crawley might be, there will be growing pains. But once they settle into the speed of the NFL, this group should be very promising.
Let’s start with Breaux. The New Orleans native has been locking down players all preseason. He looks improved, somehow demonstrating that last year, as well as he played, wasn’t his ceiling. He should continue to develop after his outstanding “rookie” season. I believe Breaux will solidify his position as one of the top CBs in the game this year. The only area that he could really improve is his zone-coverage, which he’s reportedly taken steps to develop. It’s between Breaux and Cam Jordan for the Saints’ best defensive player. Unless there’s an injury, there’s nothing to fear from the left side of this secondary.
Opposite Breaux is emerging third round pick P.J. Williams. Breaux and the coaching staff have gushed over Williams’ talent in practices. Yes, he’s young and inexperienced, and teams have found success throwing the ball his way. But he’s consistently shown an ability to stay tight in coverage and make the catch difficult. He’s strong and athletic and does a good job of mirroring the receiver. With Breaux holding down the left side of the field, Williams will be eased into his NFL transition with plenty of safety help early on. He needs to show development, but he has the tools to be a great CB.
De’Vante Harris will start at nickel CB. He’s shown the same knack for slot coverage that Damian Swann did last year. He gave up a big touchdown to Antonio Brown when he lost the ball in the air, but even then was in great position to make a play. In run support and in the open field he consistently makes tackles. The UDFA looks to have a promising career ahead of him. A starting group of Harris, Breaux, and Williams is a massive improvement over last year’s Browner fiasco. That alone should give the Saints reason for optimism.
The depth behind these three is somewhat worrying, particularly after seeing what happened last year when the starters went down. With Damian Swann and Kyle Wilson on IR and Keenan Lewis not with the team, the Saints are lucky to have found two quality UDFA players in De’Vante Harris and Ken Crawley to fill out the group. But while Harris looks ready to contribute, Crawley struggled through the preseason. He’s generally been sound in run support, but has missed a few key tackles. And his coverage has been soft at times. The Saints kept him on their 53-man roster, and so clearly have faith in his development. Still, it’d be best if he didn’t see the field too much early on.
Newly acquired Sterling Moore took Cortland Finnegan’s roster spot. It speaks to the Saints’ faith in Crawley that he was released over Crawley. It’s unclear if Crawley would have made it through waivers, but the Saints didn’t want to risk it. That possibly means they expect Crawley to be ready to contribute relatively soon. Finnegan played well for the Saints. He made tackles and played well in zone coverage. Sean Payton said that he preferred Moore’s youth and man-coverage ability, but Finnegan could certainly come back to the team if there’s an injury.
Dannell Ellerbe, James Laurinaitis, Stephone Anthony, Craig Robertson, Nate Stupar, Michael Mauti
The Saints made a point to improve the linebacker position this offseason. But it’s still, in my opinion, the weakest defensive group. Loomis brought in Laurinaitis, Robertson, and Stupar as FAs to help revitalize the position and add depth. Many Saints writers noted that poor depth at LB really crippled this defense last year. When Ellerbe went down, there was no one to step up. Not the case anymore. Craig Robertson had an impressive camp, and Nate Stupar has flashed on a film a number of times. Michael Mauti has developed into a solid backup option as well. But depth aside, this is one of the most up-and-down groups on the defense. There’s promise, but much of the preseason saw mediocre play from key contributors.
Ellerbe is still far and away the best player in this group. He does everything a LB should: he sheds blocks, make reads, makes tackles, and can cover RBs and TEs. He’s active and all over the field. He just needs to stay off the injury report. Even with the newly added depth behind him, he’ll be sorely missed against Oakland.
Craig Robertson will start in Ellerbe’s absence at WLB. The FA pickup from the Browns has shown remarkable ability coverage during training camp and practices, but I haven’t seen the same talent on tape. He reacts to plays tentatively. But he gets penetration at the line scrimmage and, hopefully, will soon demonstrate the coverage skill that the Saints brought him in for.
Laurinaitis at the starting MLB concerns me more than Robertson. The Saints brought him in to correct and simplify pre-snap alignment, and by all accounts he’s done just that. I like to think that his impact will be felt whether he’s on the field or not, because on the field he hasn’t shown enough. He diagnoses plays exceptionally well, but is simply too slow to make an impact. Add to that the fact that he has trouble shedding blocks, and the Saints have real reason for concern. I’ll hold off judgement until the regular season; Laurinaitis is a proven veteran who may feel free to coast during the preseason. But the Saints expect him to become a leader of the defense. I’d be surprised if he took that approach. If he continues to struggle, I’d like to see Robertson step in at MLB once Ellerbe returns.
At SLB, Stephone Anthony needs to start taking advantage of his athleticism. The team moved him over from MLB when, as a rookie, Anthony struggled to get the defense aligned and to react to the offense. The move also hides some of his coverage deficiencies. But Anthony is most valuable if he can develop into a MLB, primarily because he’d stay in the field in nickel packages. As the SLB, Anthony will roam the field and provide run support. It’s an important role, but the Saints drafted him as someone who could the the quarterback of the defense. Hopefully some time next to the cerebral Laurinaitis will help him develop in this capacity.
At the end of the bench, Nate Stupar and Michael Mauti will hopefully make most of their impact on special teams. The Saints named Mauti the special teams captain, and they brought Stupar in from Atlanta primarily for his impact in the kicking game, so both are assets. And Stupar has shown some ability on defense. If there’s an injury to Stephone Anthony, he’ll likely step in as the SLB. With decent players like these at the bottom of the depth chart, the Saints can handle some injuries to this group. Of course, it’d be best if the starters can stay on the field and perform up to their expectations. We’ll see how they develop together.
Tyler Davison, Nick Fairley, John Jenkins, David Onyemata
No group on defense has improved as much as the DTs. After last year’s defense was unable to pressure the quarterback, the Saints identified the lack of interior pass rush as their main problem. They brought in Nick Fairley on a prove-it deal, and drafted David Onyemata and Sheldon Rankins. Neither Fairley and Onyemata were sure things; the Saints seemed to be rolling the dice to find a player that could stick. Likewise, Tyler Davison and even John Jenkins were questionable talents. Jenkins, the starter by the end of last year, now looks to be the worst tackle in the group. Though the questions at the DE position are still somewhat unresolved, the Saints can expect their defensive line to generate a great deal more pressure this year just from the tackle position.
Add Sheldon Rankins to this group and there’s some serious talent here. Unfortunately, Rankins will not be able to play until at least week 9; he needs to stay on IR for 6 weeks, and then has to practice for another 2 weeks before playing. If another injury thins the roster at a different position, the Saints might choose to return a different player from IR, though that seems unlikely. Rankins looked every bit the player the Saints drafted. Once healthy, he should be a starter for this defense for years to come.
At this point, it looks like the other long term starter at DT might be sophomore Tyler Davison. Davison has been the surprise of training camp. He explodes off the snap and makes plays both rushing the quarterback and chasing runners. He’s made a few TFLs and left a number of guards and centers swinging. He played a solid if unspectacular rookie season, and was a contributing member to an altogether underwhelming DT group. He looks to have made a huge leap in his second year. If he can continue to develop at this pace, he can be a great player for this defense.
Nick Fairley has been another pleasant surprise. The Lions drafted him at 13 in 2011, and while managing to make solid contributions he never emerged as a clear starter at DT. He signed a prove-it deal last year with the Rams, and went on to sign a second prove-it deal with the Saints. He has a history of conditioning issues, but arrived in New Orleans in great shape. Fairley played well in the preseason, pressuring the quarterback well and making plays in the run game. If he has the year he looks poised to have, the Saints have to decide whether or not to sign him to a longer deal. With Rankins coming back, the Saints have a long term starter at the position. But DTs typically rotate, and it wouldn’t hurt to have a player of Fairley’s caliber as depth.
Behind Fairley, David Onyemata should make some early contributions. The Saints drafter Onyemata to play end, but once they saw him practice they moved him over to tackle. At his size, he’s more suited to the position. Admittedly, it took the Canadian prospect some time to adjust to the NFL level. But every game he shows improvement. Sean Payton raved about how quickly Onyemata is developing, and announced that he’ll be a solid contributor. He has all the physical tools, but has only played football for a few years, and those only in Canada. He still looks lost at times, and can work on his gap-discipline, but by the end of the year I fully expect him to be an important player for this defense.
Finally, former starter John Jenkins needs to make an impact this year to earn his keep going forward. Jenkins frustrates me. By all accounts he has the tools to succeed, but he hasn’t shown any consistent contributions or development. He’s entering his fourth year, and will be a free agent at the end of the year. With the emerging talent at his position, he’s very much on the bubble for next year. The only thing going for him is that he’s the only true 0-tech nose tackle on the active roster.
But practice squad player Ashaad Mabry, another NT, looked good in the preseason. If he can out develop Jenkins, he’d be the cheaper and, likely, most effective option. Jenkins sat for most of the preseason with an injury, so I’m fine with the Saints giving him a shot at the roster. But I’d have been fine with cutting ties with him entirely and going to Mabry this year. Prove me wrong Jenkins.
Cameron Jordan, Darryl Tapp, Paul Kruger, Kasim Edebali, Obum Gwachum
Saints fans and media made much out of the fact that the Saints didn’t directly address this position, which was a weakness last year, in the draft. Payton and Loomis claimed that, while there was room for improvement, they could make do with the players on the roster. Then projected starter Hau’oli Kikaha went down with an ACL injury. Without Kikaha, the Saints turned to Edebali and Gwachum to compete, with now FA Davis Tull, for the DE spot opposite Cam Jordan. Though both players flashed occasionally in preseason and training camp, Payton was ultimately unsatisfied with the DE play. When the Browns released Paul Kruger, the Saints acted fast. He’ll start on the left side, with Jordan on the right.
Cam Jordan had offseason surgery to fix a back injury. If he’s healthy, he should be the Saints’ best defensive player. He has a rare combination of size, speed, power, and intelligence. He had a mediocre preseason, but as the most established player on this unit recovering from offseason surgery, he’s hopefully just coasting. We’ll see on Sunday. The Saints need him to be a consistently disruptive force up front if they’re going to have defensive success. An injury to Jordan would be crippling.
To play behind Jordan, the Saints brought in veteran Darryl Tapp. Every year it feels like the Saints find some value-bin veteran who comes in and plays at a high level; this year, that player looks like Tapp. He constantly played with force in the preseason, particularly in the run game. But he also made himself felt as a rusher. An injury to Jordan would still be horrible for this defense, but Tapp is not bad depth. At 31, I wonder if the Saints would consider bringing him back for a few years after this season.
On the left side, as I mentioned, Paul Kruger will step in as the starter. A late-offseason pickup, Kruger didn’t play in any of the Saints preseason games. He had his best season in 2014 as a pass rusher, but statistically took a big step back in 2015. He still racked up a fair number of QB pressures, and Payton expressed confidence that Kruger can still get after the QB. The Saints locked the 30 year old up for three years, so they must feel that he can continue to contribute down the line.
If Kruger can generate any sort of consistent pressure, the defensive front could suddenly be a strength of this defense. A combination of Kruger, Davison, Fairley, and Jordan is one of the better groups the Saints have had in some time. Not to mention Rankins and Kikaha, who should both be back next year. There’s some talent here.
Behind Kruger, Kasim Edebali and Obum Gwachum will compete for snaps. Between them, they should see the field relatively often. Edebali should have a leg up on Gwachum, as he’s been a more complete and consistent player at end. Gwachum has flashed as a pass rusher, but remains a work in progress as an edge-setter. Either way, both players left Payton and co. underwhelmed as starters. Their development through the season is worth monitoring.
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So there it is. In the best-case scenario, the Saints have a very capable safety group with a young and emerging CB core. The secondary looks to be one of the Saints’ best since the days of Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter. Couple that with a suddenly (hopefully) talented defensive line that should generate pressure, and the Saints have the makings of an effective defense. I still have concerns about the LB group, but when healthy Ellerbe is one of the Saints’ best players. If he can stay on the field, the group should be alright.
I’m an optimist, but I have faith in this defense. We’ll see how the regular season plays out. If the defense lives up to its potential, and the offense can overcome the questions at O-Line, this year’s Saints team could be dangerous. Here’s hoping.