Sometimes it’s hard to believe the New Orleans Saints were able to acquire Delvin Breaux with what was essentially some spare change buried in their cup holder under some receipts and straw wrappers.
The cornerback was hiding in plain sight up in Canada. Everyone knew about him, but the Saints scraped together their change and slapped it down for a lottery ticket. Plenty of other teams got a look at the cornerback, but they were the team bold enough to believe in his health and potential after having Breaux in for a workout.
The numbers have started coming in, and New Orleans has hit on at least four of the six numbers in the drawing. And there’s a chance Breaux could make it six out of six if he continues to grow and show improvement.
Breaux illustrated the potential to become a Pro Bowl cornerback throughout the season, which creates optimism for his future. But even if he already is a finished product — which seems unlikely since, at the very least, he should continue to refine his technique with experience — he could jump into that category by simply cleaning some things up and playing at the same level everywhere else.
By charting every passing play faced by the Saints defense this season, The Advocate determined Breaux was in coverage for 37 completions on 78 targets (47.4 percent) for 557 yards — by far the best marks of any Saints regular.
The two things holding Breaux back from hitting on all marks during his first season were the number of touchdowns he allowed (10) and being involved in plays that can only be described as “freak occurrences.” But it warrants mention that some of those odd moments were repeated.
If this season were to repeat itself in exactly the same way next year, Breaux could drop his touchdown total in half simply by improving in two very specific areas.
The first area he needs to improve in is against pick plays. The New York Giants proved he was susceptible to this route combination by beating Breaux on it twice. Jacksonville beat him with it again later in the season. It’s a tough play for a cornerback, which makes it tough to criticize, but he needs to recognize the play sooner and find a way to combat against it, whether it be by being more physical at the line or calling for a switch.
The other area is the aforementioned freak plays. Breaux had one odd play against Tampa Bay in Week 2 when he lost track of a pass and gave up a 54-yard reception. He then fell twice when trailing Indianapolis receiver T.Y. Hilton for scores of 87 and 46 yards.
One might conclude Breaux has issues against go routes based on those three plays, but the opposite is actually true. With his ability to pin receivers to the sideline and run stride for stride with them, it was actually one of the routes he defended best throughout the season.
Eliminate those three plays, and Breaux surrendered three receptions for 82 yards on go routes, with the long coming on a 50-yard reception by Odell Beckham Jr. The Giants receiver, who might be the most impressive route-runner studied in these parts over the past two seasons, was the only receiver who truly got the better of Breaux this year.
Breaux also was exceptional against curl routes, giving up 10 receptions on 22 targets for 80 yards.
This is impressive in itself since curls can be difficult to defend given good timing between quarterback and receiver. It became even more impressive when considering Breaux broke up six passes and intercepted two others when targeted on curls.
Watch the Jacksonville game for an example of his proficiency in this area. During that game, Breaux jumped a curl route and tipped the ball to defensive end Bobby Richardson, who pulled it in for an interception. Breaux jumped another curl on his next target and ripped it away for a pick.
The only routes Breaux was beaten on with any consistency throughout the year were in routes (three targets, three receptions, 52 yards) and out routes (three receptions, five targets, 25 yards). But the fact that Breaux was rarely targeted on these routes might be more telling of how he defended them than the numbers.
There’s little question Breaux was the most valuable acquisition of the offseason for the Saints, if not the entire NFL, when considering his impact against his salary. At $525,000 next season, Breaux, who is on the verge of becoming a shutdown cornerback, will continue to be one of the better bargains in the league.
The Saints could soon figure out what it takes to retain him beyond the 2017 season if the New England Patriots extend cornerback Malcolm Butler, who also entered the league as an undrafted player and has quickly rose.
But those issues are down the road. The only question surrounding Breaux now: Can he go from very good to truly great?
The seeds to accomplish that task were planted during Breaux’s first season in the NFL. Now he just has to continue to flourish.