The plan was put in motion at safety when the Saints selected Vonn Bell in the second round of the draft.
If things follow the team’s vision, at some point, whether it’s next year or a couple more down the road, the Ohio State product will slide in at free safety be the long-term starter at that position. That’s simple to see. New Orleans wouldn’t have traded up to select Bell if it didn’t believe this was in his future.
But there’s a logjam in the interim that might make it difficult to find him snaps if the Saints defense sticks to same packages it used last year. There’s only room for one deep safety in the single-high looks the team used last season, and Jairus Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro are still on the roster. Neither player is here to watch.
Byrd, who counts $10.9 million against the cap this year, is still someone with Pro Bowl ability. And Vaccaro, who is a strong safety, was one of the better players on defense last season and recently had his fifth-year option picked up.
So the issue is finding ways that all three players can play at the same time. Right now, the Saints say they’re still figuring out what the best practices will be for this defense.
“I think it’s way too early to say we’re going to play with this group or that group or whatever,” defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said. “We’ve had six OTA practices. What I will say is that our job as coaches is to evaluate the team, figure out who the best players are and find ways to utilize them. That’s what we’re going to do.”
The most logical way for that to happen is by using more three-safety sets, which was a popular part of the defense in 2013 when New Orleans employed Vaccaro, Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins.
Things moved back to more two-safety looks in 2014 and last season. The Saints played a lot of two-high looks in 2014, but Byrd wasn’t on the field for most of the season after suffering a knee injury. The defense was predominately single high last year.
Given the personnel on the roster, having a three-safety subpackage could make a lot of sense for the defense. Both Bell and Byrd are players who make plays by reading the field and using their instincts. Having only half the field to patrol could make it easier for them to get in position and make plays.
It also helps that a lot of their success has come playing in two-high looks. It was something the Buffalo Bills did a lot of when Byrd built his name as an All-Pro safety before signing with the Saints.
Ohio State mixed things up, but Bell made a lot of his plays last season while covering half the field.
Vaccaro, meanwhile, is at his best playing close to the line of scrimmage, at times almost playing like a linebacker. He served in this role as a rookie and at times last season. Not much about his role would change. The only major difference from his perspective would be that there would be better pass coverage behind him.
Considering New Orleans had trouble covering passes in the flats and other short routes to running backs last season, as well as against the run, having Vaccaro there could help alleviate some of the vulnerabilities in the defense.
“Sometimes teams will get into those subpackages to bring the littler nickel corner into the game and be able to run the football,” Allen said. “If you have a bigger safety that can hold up in the run game but yet has the skill set to potentially cover a wide receiver it allows you to be a little more multiple.”
Coach Sean Payton mentioned this as one possible benefit to having the package. But he also agreed with Allen that it’s more often about putting the best five defensive backs on the field.
“I think situationally it would depend on the down and distance, and it’s something we utilize, and you see more teams doing,” Payton said. “Sometimes a team may have a safety playing a linebacker position. Generally, it’s for more spread sets.”
It’s good for New Orleans to have options in the secondary. That often wasn’t the case last season, and there were times when things were dictated more by who was available than what the team wanted to do.
Hopefully, by bringing back the three-safety sets, the Saints will be able to add a wrinkle that will help bring success.