MINNEAPOLIS — The New Orleans Saints have spent decades searching for a true franchise cornerback, the kind of cover man who can lock down a receiver every game for a decade.
New Orleans might finally have found its man.
Marshon Lattimore, the first of two first-round picks by the Saints in April's NFL draft, became the first Saint to be named Defensive Rookie of the Year when the award was handed out by New Orleans' own Odell Beckham Jr. at the NFL Honors show on Saturday night.
"I'm just blessed to be in this position right now," Lattimore said.
Coupled with Alvin Kamara's Offensive Rookie of the Year, New Orleans became only the second team to sweep the Rookie of the Year awards, joining running back Mel Farr and cornerback Lem Barney of the 1967 Detroit Lions.
New Orleans initially thought there was no way Lattimore would fall to the No. 11 pick in the draft. An incredible cornerback at Ohio State who allowed just seven catches in 13 games as a junior despite being left alone in man coverage all season, Lattimore graded out as the third-highest player on the board for the Saints, who never saw the cornerback fall to them in any of their in-house simulations.
A run of offensive players — capped by Kansas City trading ahead of the Saints at No. 10 to take quarterback Patrick Mahomes, another Saints target — and perhaps concern about hamstring injuries he suffered in college pushed Lattimore down the board to the Saints, who happily scooped him up as the jewel of a rookie class that would end up becoming one of the best in recent memory.
"I'm glad all the teams passed up on me, because I'm in the best position I feel like I could have been with the Saints," Lattimore said.
Playing in New Orleans meant playing under pressure at a thin cornerback position that took a heavy blow when projected starter Delvin Breaux broke his fibula in training camp.
Lattimore also knew he was under pressure from defensive end Cameron Jordan, who had seen sacks slip through his fingers because of coverage problems too many times.
"That's what we were lacking, it was the back end," Lattimore said. From day one, Cam was telling me, 'I need you, so get it done for me,' and I was like, 'I got you.'
Lattimore's natural ability flashed right away. Despite missing part of the preseason due to injury, Lattimore opened the season as a starter, and in the second game of the season he announced his presence to the NFL.
Matched up in man-to-man coverage against Brandin Cooks in the week two game against the New England Patriots, Lattimore allowed the former Saint to catch just two passes for 37 yards, a performance he'd later duplicate against Green Bay Pro Bowler Davante Adams (one catch, nine yards) and Tampa Bay's Mike Evans (one catch for 13 yards in the first meeting).
Lattimore was so good on such a consistent basis that he even surprised his family.
"Getting adapted to the strength and speed of the game, I thought it would take more time than what it did, but hey, he came out just the second and third game and pretty much helped his team turn around," his father, Marland Lattimore, said.
By season's end, Lattimore was tied for fifth in the NFL with five interceptions — the most by a Saint since Darren Sharper picked off nine in 2009 — and tied for sixth in the NFL with 18 pass breakups, even though he missed one game with a concussion and two more with a sprained ankle suffered early on against Washington.
Lattimore also deserves credit for freeing up the rest of the secondary to play more freely. With Lattimore able to shadow receivers without help on one side and a rookie free safety over the top, safeties Kenny Vaccaro and Vonn Bell thrived as pressure players near the line of scrimmage.
"His surge on the defensive back corps, along with Marcus Williams ... the level of play just elevated," Jordan said. "For him to be able to do that as a rookie, that's truly special."
A secondary that had always been the defense's weakest link suddenly became a strength, and the Saints finished seventh in the NFL in opponent passer rating, finally giving the prolific New Orleans offense the help it needed to get back to the playoffs.
"I'm just glad to be a part of something like that," Lattimore said. "They thought our defense was terrible. We had to change that."
Lattimore's play made him a big favorite for a Defensive Rookie of the Year award that came down to the Saints rookie, former LSU Tre'Davious White's season in Buffalo and Pittsburgh outside linebacker T.J. Watt.
Traditionally, the Defensive Rookie of the Year almost always goes to somebody in the front seven, but this class was different.
"I think I'm the first defensive back since '96 or something like that," Lattimore said." It's crazy, I was born in '96, so it's been too many years since that happened."
Lattimore's facts were a little bit off — Kansas City's Marcus Peters won two years ago, and Charles Woodson won the award in 1998, while Simeon Rice won in 1996 — but that's still only three defensive backs in the past 25 years.
White, who was Lattimore's biggest competition all season long with four picks and 18 pass breakups of his own, marched in lockstep with Lattimore all season long.
"We're good friends, we text a lot," White said. "I try to text him about receivers, and he'll text me about receivers. We have a great relationship, and he's one of the best coming up right now."
Lattimore, who grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, dreaming of NFL stardom, reaped the fruits of his labor earlier this week, making a round of appearances on Radio Row at the Super Bowl and reveling in his place among the stars on Saturday night at NFL Honors.
"This is what his dream was all about," Marland Lattimore said. "Playing ball, and all the perks that come with it."