It’s not a stretch to say that improving the secondary has been one of the New Orleans Saints’ priorities.
They signed safety Jairus Byrd to a $56 million deal last winter, brought in cornerback Brandon Browner this offseason and have drafted three players at the position during the past two drafts. Along the way, they’ve also picked up some other players off the street or from the Canadian Football League to provide depth.
The only real question concerning the secondary — other than if things will come together — is whether there’s a cornerback on the roster who can cover the slot. Former New York Jets cornerback Kyle Wilson was signed this offseason to prove some insurance at that position, but he should not be considered a lock to win the job — especially not after New Orleans snatched P.J. Williams out of Florida State in the third round of the draft.
Previously considered a fringe first-round prospect, Williams slipped after being picked up for DUI prior to the draft. The case has since been dismissed, leaving the Saints with what could end up being one of the better values found in this draft.
Williams has the tools to make that happen. He’s long (6-foot and 194 pounds), fast, has good hips and is strong in run support. More important, however, is that he knows how to cover and appears to fit the mold of the other cornerbacks recently brought in.
The signing of Browner appeared to signal a change in philosophy in how New Orleans will cover moving forward. After using lots of zone last season, the addition of the physical Browner suggested the defense will now look to play more press-man coverage. The addition of Williams further bolsters that hunch.
Williams is at his best when playing at the line of scrimmage, where he can get a jam on a receiver and shadow him down the field. The only time he appears to struggle is when playing zone, where he can be slow to react at times. But if the defense moves toward more physical coverage, that liability might not be much of a liability.
There’s no question Williams can cover. In the four games studied for this article, he provided consistent coverage and did not commit many egregious errors. He routinely put good jams on receivers and primarily played press coverage, at times mixing in some press-bail principles.
In an effort to see him against top competition, a close eye was kept on how Williams performed against former Louisville receiver DeVante Parker, a first-round pick of the Miami Dolphins. For the most part, Williams shined, breaking up a pair of passes intended for the 6-3 receiver.
The only times Williams was badly beaten was when he failed to recover on a double move over the middle and on a deep pass down the left sideline. On the latter play, the cornerback provided solid coverage but was simply beaten by a perfectly placed throw to the outside shoulder.
The big question is whether Williams can cover the slot. While he did not log many snaps on the inside during the games reviewed, it appears he has the traits necessary to play there. He anticipates routes well and has good, fluid hips, which is a needed trait against quicker receivers. With his ability to re-route receivers, he could excel in that spot if his talents translate inside.
It’s also possible that Williams’ future lies at another position. Many scouting reports written about him before the draft suggest Williams could be even better at safety. It’s not hard to see why this projection is being made.
With his ability to smother runs and set the edge, Williams plays like a safety in the box. He’s a strong tackler and does not shy away from contact. If nothing else, his skill set will give the Saints some flexibility and the option to get creative with his role.
In terms of potential liabilities on the field, outside of being somewhat susceptible to double moves, Williams tends to get himself in trouble with his aggressiveness and physicality. He’ll need to do a better job of keeping his hands off receivers down the field.
But like some of the other players selected by New Orleans, the Saints might have obtained a great value in the middle rounds of the draft if Williams can make the jump to this level.