New Orleans Saints Should Bolster Secondary Late in 2019 NFL Draft

Saints NFL Draft
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MARCH 04: Defensive back Jordan Miller of Washington runs the 40-yard dash during day five of the NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on March 4, 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The New Orleans Saints 2019 draft class could turn out to be the most underwhelming in recent memory. As of this writing, the Saints won’t be on the clock until late in the second round, then over 100 players will be drafted before New Orleans makes its second selection in the fifth round. They should be able to find decent value in the second round, but the majority of their other picks are likely to be backups early in their respective careers if they can even crack a strong Saints roster.

Nonetheless, New Orleans can still get better in this draft. With five picks in the final three rounds, the Saints have a good opportunity to add depth to a roster where most of the starters are already locked in. While New Orleans could use additional depth on their offensive and defensive line among other spots, they shouldn’t forget about their defensive backfield, where they’ve consistently been impacted by injuries in recent years.

New Orleans Saints Should Bolster Secondary Depth in the 2019 Draft

Recent Picks in the Secondary

The Saints have spent considerable resources on their secondary in the previous six drafts. The Saints have selected five defensive backs in the first two rounds since 2013 and it’s mostly paid off. While 2013 first rounder Kenny Vaccaro and 2014 second-round bust Stanley JeanBaptiste are no longer with the team, 2016 second rounder Vonn Bell and 2017 early picks Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams make up three-quarters of the Saints starting base secondary.

New Orleans also used some draft currency early last season to acquire cornerback Eli Apple, costing the team its 2019 fourth-round pick and a 2020 seventh-round pick.

Patrick Robinson was a 2010 Saints first-round pick who spent three years on other teams before returning as New Orleans starting nickel back last season. However, A week Three injury to Robinson thrust 2015 third rounder P.J. Williams into the slot corner role. While Williams had his share of struggles early in the year, he grew more confident and reliable in this role as the season progressed.

New Orleans is set to enter the 2019 season with its strongest and deepest defensive backfield in this decade. However, the team has struggled to keep this unit healthy in recent years and it should continue adding new pieces.

Injury History

Losing Robinson early last season was a major blow, but at least the rest of the Saints secondary stayed relatively healthy. The unit fared pretty well in 2017 aside from a season-ending injury to Vaccaro. Starting cornerbacks Lattimore and Ken Crawley missed three games apiece, and both were absent for a pivotal road loss to the Los Angeles Rams that ended a 10-game Saints winning streak.

2015 and 2016, by comparison, were unmitigated disasters for the Saints secondary. P.J. Williams played in just two games in his first two seasons in the league. New Orleans released projected starting cornerback Keenan Lewis just before the 2016 season as he struggled to recover from hip surgery. Delvin Breaux played in just six games. Vaccaro also missed five games that season. While relying on aging cornerback Sterling Moore and undrafted rookies Crawley and Devante Harris, New Orleans finished 2016 with the most passing yards allowed league-wide.

The aforementioned hip injury held Lewis to just six games and one start in 2015. Damian Swann, the Saints fifth-round pick from that year showed some promise, but three concussions limited the rookie to seven games and he never played another NFL snap. New Orleans went on to allow the most touchdown passes in NFL history that season as their lack of secondary depth proved devastating.

Unlike 2015 and 2016, New Orleans is now considered a Super Bowl favorite. They can’t afford to have their season derailed by a couple of injuries in the secondary. Furthermore, it’s unclear how strong Robinson will be in his return from a brutal ankle injury and he turns 32 in September. P.J. Williams is likely to serve a suspension following a DWI arrest in January and questions remain about his consistency on the field. Behind Williams is the embattled Crawley, who was benched last season after a rough start.

At safety, the Saints currently have only Chris Banjo on the roster behind Bell and Marcus Williams. Banjo managed to intercept two desperation throws by quarterback Carson Wentz in a blowout win over the Philadelphia Eagles last season, but he’s spent his six-year career mostly as a special teams contributor.

When looking at the Saints secondary in this light, additional depth in the secondary seems more like a need than a luxury.

Potential Day Three Draft Picks

Finding standout, late-round projection prospects is a challenge since they receive low grades for one reason or another. There are many potential fits, but these are three prospects at cornerback and safety who could be good fits for the Saints defensive system and should be available on day three of the draft.

Jordan Miller, CB draft analyst Lance Zierlein compares Miller to Crawley. Many Saints fans may rule Miller out on this information alone, however, the Saints love tall, physical press cornerbacks. This is partially why New Orleans stuck with the undrafted Crawley in his first two seasons. Apple has comparable strengths to Crawley, but a more polished game overall.

Miller has top-end speed to go along with 6’1″ height, though he could benefit from adding muscle to his 186-pound frame after managing just six bench reps at the combine. On the other hand, Miller showed good timing when locating and breaking up passes at Washington. Crawley’s inability to do this consistently and excessive pass interference infractions is what made him a target for opposing quarterbacks.

Blessuan Austin, CB

Austin is another 6’1″ corner but he’s bigger (198 pounds) and stronger (15 bench reps) than Miller. Austin’s upside is that he played a variety of coverages at Rutgers. While he excelled in cover three looks, Austin has room to improve in press coverage. The biggest concern about Austin is his durability, and it’s a valid one. After a standout sophomore year in 2016, Austin played in just five games in his final two seasons.

Derrek Thomas, CB

Thomas’ physical profile alone should be enough to get attention late in the draft. He’s 6’3″ with long arms and 4.44 speed. These traits helped Thomas become a dominating press cornerback at Baylor, but he has little experience playing other coverages. He must improve in run support too, and building up his lanky 189-pound frame would be a good starting point. Thomas is also lacking experience. He’s a converted wide receiver with only 14 career starts at cornerback.

Saquan Hampton, S

New Orleans likes versatile safeties who can handle a variety of assignments and make reads difficult for opposing offenses. Hampton firmly fits that profile. His decent size (6’1″, 206 pounds) and 4.48 speed made him a tough matchup for both tight ends and slot receivers and he has experience in single high coverage.

He was considered a leader while playing alongside Austin at Rutgers, helping earn him earn the team’s MVP award last season. Hampton was also an All-Big Ten honorable mention in 2018 after breaking up 13 passes and recording 65 tackles (three for loss). Hampton would likely be a higher projection if it weren’t for durability concerns. He missed significant chunks of his sophomore and junior seasons due to two separate shoulder injuries.

Sheldrick Redwine, S

Redwine is another versatile, early day three safety prospect with excellent speed. He spent his first two seasons playing cornerback before thriving in his transition to safety. While Redwine had lapses in deep coverage, he was a physical presence near the line of scrimmage at Miami in both coverage and run support. His three interceptions, 64 tackles (3.5 for loss) and three sacks as a senior earned him an All-ACC honorable mention.

Malik Gant, S

Gant’s aggressiveness and block-shedding ability will help him find a role somewhere in the NFL. He’s another strong run-stopper who excels near the line of scrimmage but needs to improve his instincts in coverage. Gant also didn’t face much top-end talent while playing at Marshall. Nonetheless, Gant had an incredible senior year, recording 95 tackles (nine for losses), two interceptions, and eight pass breakups. Gant earned second-team All-Conference USA honors and was named team MVP for his efforts.

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