The days of getting by in the secondary with a serviceable third cornerback lining up in the slot ended a long time ago in the NFL.
A team’s fifth defensive back is essentially a starter now, a key component to “nickel” defenses in an era when all but two or three teams throw the ball more than 50 percent of the time and teams employ the shotgun formation nearly 60 percent of the time.
New Orleans needs to find a starter-caliber player to fill that role, a slot cornerback termed :Star” in Rob Ryan’s defense. The two men who manned it most in 2014, Corey White and Patrick Robinson, are gone, and the Saints drafted two players — third-rounder P.J. Williams and fifth-rounder Damian Swann — who have the ability to play the spot. Both will compete with veteran free agent Kyle Wilson and others to handle a role that has become every bit as important as the ones outside cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Keenan Lewis play.
“With 70 percent of the snaps being nickel, that really is the new base,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “We get so accustomed to the core positions that are used to running out of the tunnel, and then you watch the Super Bowl and you watch that game, and we’ve watched both sides of the ball and close to eighty percent of it is played in sub.”
By “sub,” Payton is referring to personnel packages that put five or six defensive backs on the field in order to match up with three and four-receiver sets.
For what it’s worth, the Saints had something of a mixed bag in the slot last season. White, who’s now in Dallas, played 187 snaps there and allowed a 122.4 quarterback rating, per Pro Football Focus; safety Kenny Vaccaro allowed a 68.4 rating in his 108 snaps at the position; and Robinson, who struggled badly on the outside in five seasons in New Orleans, allowed only a 57.5 rating in his 162 snaps, a number that likely helped him land in San Diego in free agency.
With nine cornerbacks on the roster heading into OTAs this summer — most with experience — it’s debatable if Vaccaro will be a factor in the slot.
And that opens an opportunity for Williams and Swann. During rookie minicamp, Payton said CFL import Delvin Breaux most likely would focus on the outside, and Wilson, a former first-round pick, took a step back in the slot in 2014 with the New York Jets, allowing quarterbacks to pile up a 107.4 rating against him.
“Those two young players will have a chance there,” Payton said. “And then we’ve got some players currently on the roster that we feel like will have a chance to compete.”
Both rookies already have experience playing inside.
Swann, in particular, spent parts of all four seasons at Georgia playing in the slot.
“I’m used to being there, and I’m pretty confident there, and I’m ready to compete,” Swann said. “I’m playing a little corner, I’m playing a little Star, so being able to be versatile, which is what I want to be, I think it’s going to help me make this roster and earn me some playing time.”
Williams spent his final season at Florida State as an outside corner, rarely playing in the slot, but he’s got plenty of experience playing inside from his first two years with the Seminoles, who had LaMarcus Joyner playing outside at the time.
The third-round pick said he still feels comfortable on the inside. When a corner moves into the slot, the mindset changes, and Williams has an acute understanding of the differences between the two positions.
“Technique, pretty much,” Williams said. “It’s just different technique. Sometimes you’re playing off more than you’re playing on, and you’ve got to know how to play your man to your help and stuff like that.”
Browner, Williams and Swann have plenty of experience in press-man coverage, a signal that New Orleans may want to use the hands-on technique more than the secondary has recently, or a hybrid scheme that allows the corners to play in press man over the top.
Whatever concepts the Saints use, New Orleans’ biggest question mark in the secondary heading into the offseason is probably in the slot.
Both Williams and Swann said they would love to fill that gap.
“There’s definitely an opportunity there,” Williams said. “I’m pretty much going to work and play wherever my coach wants me to play, and if I’m able to play it, it’ll definitely be great.”