The Saints have a dilemma.
Their incumbent star corner, Keenan Lewis, is on his way back from sports hernia surgery and insists that he’ll be “up” this week against the Dallas Cowboys, which leaves one open spot for either Brandon Browner, who was signed to a lucrative contract this offseason, or rising star Delvin Breaux.
It’s a good problem to have, especially after not having a solid answer at cornerback behind Lewis last season, but an answer is going to be needed sooner than later.
“Obviously we will have more than one defensive package and we have to find a way to put our best guys out there,” coach Sean Payton said. “Then depending on whether it’s first or second down, or possibly third down, that could change.”
The answer might not become immediately clear this week. Lewis could come back on a snap count of sorts, which would relegate him to specific situations or downs. But if or when he isn’t limited, the early results this season strongly suggest that Breaux should be given consideration for the other starting spot.
While he doesn’t have the experience or the price tag of Browner, it’s beginning to look like he could emerge as the best cover corner on the roster. His teammates raved about his ability throughout the offseason and training camp. The praise has since become stronger.
“He’s a lockdown corner,” Lewis said. “If you watch tape, he blankets guys. He knows what his job is. That’s what he do.”
While he hasn’t faced the kind of test that top receivers such as Atlanta’s Julio Jones or Detroit’s Calvin Johnson present, it’s hard to argue with Lewis’ assessment of Breaux over the first three games.
He had some hiccups Week 1 against the Arizona Cardinals, a game in which he was flagged four times. The reason for the flags, Breaux explained, was the result of resting on the instincts he developed in the Canadian Football League. He quickly fixed those errors and has been almost unbeatable since.
Since that game, Breaux has given up one reception, a 54 yarder, after he lost the ball in the lights and did not receive much assistance from the safety. He’s otherwise largely erased the men he’s covering on every other snap.
Breaux was targeted two other times against Tampa. The first was a go route to wide receiver Mike Evans, but Breaux pinned him to the sideline and forced him out of bounds before he could complete the catch. The second target fell incomplete after Breaux jammed Evans on a crossing route, which forced an incompletion.
The next week against Carolina, Breaux was only targeted once on a go route. He pinned Ted Ginn, who is one of the faster receivers in the NFL, to the sideline and forced an incompletion.
Breaux’s ability to pin receivers to the line, which helps him shrink the field, has been one of his greatest strengths and it’s always on his mind to do so as soon as he turns up the field.
“To finally get them steps back from the adjustment of the CFL because the field was so wide – I couldn’t really pin in the CFL because the field was so wide,” Breaux said. “But now that I’m starting to get everything back in the nature of how to play defensive back in the NFL it’s starting to show.”
Browner, meanwhile, has not gotten off to as strong of a start. He gave up two deep receptions exceeding 50 yards against the Panthers last week and struggled at times in the zone coverage used by the Saints, which does not always play to his strengths as a press corner.
Eliminating those big plays is something the defense is working to fix this week.
“We got the get the explosive plays off the tape. Other than that, if you look at the tape, I think we’ve been playing well. You can’t give up 50-yard plays, that’s it. Other than that, all the catches have been contested.”
If the Saints move forward with Breaux and Lewis on the outside, Browner could be used as a matchup player. After struggling as a unit against Carolina tight end Greg Olsen, the 6-foot-4 Browner could be paired up with Dallas tight end Jason Witten this week.
New England, Browner’s former team, had success in a handful of games last season against tight ends. Against the Broncos, he matched up with Julius Thomas and almost acted like a weakside linebacker at times. It’s a strategy that could get all the players on the field and play to the strengths of the roster this week.
How everything fits in other weeks isn’t clear. Browner likely would not be in the best position to succeed covering slot receivers, and rookie Damian Swann also needs to find snaps somewhere. But Breaux is beginning to perform at a level where he needs to be on the field every snap. The details can be figured out on a week-to-week basis.
But this approach all depends on Breaux being given the chance and delivering on his potential as a lockdown corner. It’s a label the first-year player is not ready to rest upon.
“I got to keep working. I never get complacent,” Breaux said. “It’s pretty intriguing coming from (Lewis), but I have other stuff to work on and keep getting better.”
Seeing how Breaux builds on his fast start will be equally intriguing.