New Orleans Saints Safeties (5):
- C.J. Gardner-Johnson
- Malcolm Jenkins
- Marcus Williams
- J.T. Gray
- P.J. Williams
Of the 11 position groups that will make up the New Orleans Saints team in the upcoming NFL season, there is but one that is projected as being comprised entirely of players who were on the team’s active roster in 2020.
The lack of turnover at the safety position was made possible by the agreement the Saints front office reached with Marcus Williams early in the offseason, inking the 2017 second-round pick to a one-year tender with a franchise tag designation. The terms of the agreement guarantee Williams over $10 million for his efforts in the upcoming season while allowing the team until July 15th of this year to sign Williams to a multi-year extension.
Williams has played in 60 of a possible 64 games since arriving in New Orleans and has been a starter for each, a streak he continued for the first 14 weeks of 2020 before an ankle injury caused him to miss the final two weeks of the season. An instinctual player and a leader on the backend of the secondary, the loss of Williams in free agency would have been difficult for the team to overcome.
Joining Williams at safety is Malcolm Jenkins, the Saints’ first-round pick in 2009 who won a Super Bowl in New Orleans as a rookie and then again seven years later as a Philadelphia Eagle.
In the first year of the 4-year, $32 million contract that he signed to return to the Saints, Jenkins would play virtually every defensive snap and finish the regular season as the team’s second-leading tackler behind Demario Davis. Though Jenkins would start slowly in 2020, his performance improved when coordinator Dennis Allen made the decision to play Jenkins closer to the line of scrimmage while utilizing him less in man coverage.
While Chauncey Gardner-Johnson is listed as a safety on the team’s official roster, such a title does little justice to his duties on the field. Nor is it as simple as referring to CJGJ as a slot corner.
Though he does spend the majority of his time as a slot defender in the passing game, he draws coverage responsibilities on the outside as well and can often be seen nearing the line of scrimmage, such as when he is asked to line up over or to the outside of a team’s tight end in more of a linebacker-type role. Even in his duties from the slot, Johnson’s play versus the run allows for a virtual “big nickel” look without having to sacrifice coverage ability.
P.J. Williams is another in the line of “positionless” players that the Saints employ on defense. No longer used primarily as a cornerback either outside or in the slot, Williams settled into something more akin to a safety-type position (both free and strong) over the course of the 2020 season. Though dogged in run support and capable of working in space in the passing game, Williams has shown to struggle in man coverage.
J.T. Gray gets the roster nod here based primarily on his value to the team as a core special teamer. UDFA Richard Burrell is a smart, hard-nosed player who served as a coach on the field in the pro-style Wisconsin defense of former NFL safety Jim Leonhard. Sneakily adept in coverage, if Burrell can close the gap with Gray in the kicking game he could make things interesting for team coaches when final roster cuts are made.