Finding the right parts to restore the defense in New Orleans took a lot of time, a lot of resources and a few sunk costs.
A few rare, exotic pieces required considerable investment, and the Saints surrounded the expensive additions with aftermarket components picked up in shrewd bidding moves at auction. A few parts ran well for a while, only to break and send New Orleans out in search of a replacement.
The final piece was tucked away in a corner of the garage.
Ken Crawley was inactive for the first two games, left to watch from the sideline as the defense coughed and sputtered against the Vikings and Patriots.
Injuries forced him into the lineup against Carolina, and Crawley responded by playing a key role in a season-altering win over the Panthers, then made the first interception of his career to end Miami's opening drive in London.
"It was a game-changer," Crawley said. "Changed everything."
Crawley's emergence fixed the defense's final flaw. New Orleans, perpetually in search of cornerbacks, had already found a Pro Bowler in Marshon Lattimore, the kind of rare, exotic piece that every NFL team covets, even if he had fallen to the No. 11 pick in April's draft.
But Lattimore wasn't enough by himself. A defense needs two starting-caliber cornerbacks to run smoothly; if there's only one, the other can collapse under the increased pressure from opposing offenses.
Crawley has born the weight.
Undrafted out of Colorado, Crawley might have looked at first like an interchangeable part.
The people who helped build him knew better.
"Out of everybody, we knew he was destined to make it to the NFL," John Walker, Crawley's teammate in both high school and college, said. "It was just a matter of time before that happened."
Sherrard Harrington was the first Warrior to head for the mountains.
Harrington, a year ahead of Crawley at Washington, D.C., powerhouse H.D. Woodson, chose Colorado over the typical throng of East Coast schools that recruit the D.C. area.
The goal was the NFL. Jon Embree, Colorado's coach at the time, and Eric Bieniemy both had NFL backgrounds, and a chance at the NFL prompted Harrington to become the first Woodson product ever to play at Colorado.
He only had to wait a year for company. A year later, Warriors defensive end De'Jon Wilson flipped from Kansas to Colorado at the end of November, and Walker, a cornerback, joined Wilson by committing to the Buffaloes in mid-January.
Crawley, the prize of Woodson's class, a coveted four-star recruit who was originally committed to Tennessee, made it four when he chose the Buffaloes right before national signing day.
"Guys like me and my best friends, we wanted to get away from home," Crawley said. "We grew up in a rough neighborhood, and a lot of guys don’t even make it out. The trend was everybody going to Maryland, Virginia Tech, Virginia. I had offers from those schools, and we just wanted to be different, go outside and experience new things."
Crawley is from southeast D.C. — "probably the roughest part," Crawley said — and was raised by his mother and grandmother. With an aunt and uncle in the Metropolitan Police Department, Crawley was steered away from violence, but the spectre was always there.
According to Walker, almost every one of the Woodson products has family or friends in jail. One of Crawley's best friends, Gadgett, was shot and killed when Crawley was a freshman at Colorado.
For athletes like Crawley and Walker, Woodson offered a way out. A team that regularly wins D.C. championships, Woodson is known for getting athletes into college on scholarships, the kind of scholarships that open up entirely new doors.
"It was a magnificent opportunity for me and for those other guys as well," Harrington said. "There’s a lot of gun violence, a lot of gang violence, a lot of that stuff surrounding us in D.C. It’s hard to get ahead, because you always have individuals that don’t want to see you shine."
But having friends from home was equally important. Woodson, according to District of Columbia Public Schools, has a student population that is 98.4 percent black. The University of Colorado, on the other hand, is 69 percent white, according to the Denver Post.
Harrington, who spent a year on the campus before the rest of the Woodson contingent arrived, remembers feeling out of place.
"It was definitely a culture shock," Harrington said. "It wasn’t what I was from. When those guys came out, it felt like I was at home, because we connected on a different level, things that we were accustomed to. The transition went smoothly once they got out there."
A coaching change in Boulder gave Crawley's NFL hopes a boost after his freshman season.
Colorado fired Embree and hired Mike MacIntyre, a talented coach with five years of NFL experience as a defensive backs coach. MacIntyre, who spent four years working with Bill Parcells in Dallas, still spends a lot of his time coaching the secondary in practice, and he knows how to build an NFL cornerback.
"We have a very good idea of evaluating what a really good DB would be at safety or at corner; that’s kind of what I’ve done my entire life," MacIntyre said. "Some of our guys weren’t heavily recruited at all, and they bypass all these heavily recruited guys. There’s a lot of credentials, a lot of things that I look for, and I can kind of see them with my naked eye. There are character traits I look for, too."
The proof is right there in the NFL draft.
Chidobe Awuzie, a second-round cornerback, has started five games in Dallas as a rookie this season; third-rounder Ahkello Witherspoon has two interceptions as a starter in San Francisco; and Isaiah Oliver, a junior this season, might be the first Buffalo taken in the first round since tackle Nate Solder in 2011.
Crawley suddenly had the perfect teacher.
"It was kind of sweet, having your head coach be more hands-on, teaching what he learned in the league," Crawley said. "It was an advantage."
Crawley had started 10 games as a freshman, but he had a ways to go.
For starters, he was skinny. Crawley was listed at 170 pounds on his Rivals recruiting profile; Walker remembers his friend struggling to bench-press 135 pounds when they first got to Colorado.
But MacIntyre could see the potential if Crawley could fill out his frame.
"He’s made like a perfect DB, to be honest with you," MacIntyre said. "He’s six-foot tall, he’s able to get in and out of breaks because he’s not too high-cut, and he’s got long arms that enable him to make plays at the end of the route."
More importantly, Crawley had the kind of mental makeup MacIntyre needed at a Colorado program that had struggled for the better part of a decade.
"First time I ever met him, I felt like he was a guy that was just hungry to be as successful as he could be, and a sensational hunger to play at the next level," MacIntyre said.
Crawley was convinced he'd be drafted.
Under MacIntyre, Crawley had blossomed into a four-year starter, a 6-foot, 190-pound prospect who ran the 40-yard dash in an impressive 4.43 seconds at the NFL scouting combine.
Draft experts pegged Crawley anywhere from the third round to the fifth, and as the cornerbacks often mentioned around him started coming off the board in the third, the Colorado product expected to feel his phone ring at any moment.
Except the call never came.
"There were only a couple of picks left, teams were calling me early, saying they were going to do this, do that," Crawley said. "I just was prepared for the worst. Me and my agent looking at rosters, trying to find the best scenario to go to and make the roster."
Crawley and Walker believe a brush with the dangers of home might have played a role.
During Crawley's senior season, a friend from high school, Donte Faison, called him and said he was going to visit Boulder, come to one of Colorado's games. Crawley, who lived with Walker, Wilson, Harrington and a couple of other teammates from California, readily agreed.
What Faison did not say was that he was wanted for an attempted murder charge in Baltimore. While the players were at practice one day, Denver police surrounded the house and engaged in a standoff that lasted for six hours before Faison's arrest.
"I want to say that was the reason, but I'm not a general manager, I don't make decisions," Crawley said. "Every team, basically, asked me about the situation."
MacIntyre has a different take.
For all of the success he had in college, Crawley had trouble finishing plays at Colorado. He finished his career with just three interceptions; MacIntyre spent countless hours with Crawley working on drills to get the ball out and make the play.
When NFL scouts traveled to Boulder to talk to MacIntyre about Crawley, the Colorado coach lobbied hard for them to draft his cornerback.
"I knew exactly what they were seeing, but also, they weren’t on my side, they didn’t see what I saw every day," MacIntyre said. "I thought if he got an opportunity, and they let him stick around, he’d be a really good player."
Crawley's issues at the end of the play hurt him as a rookie in New Orleans. Forced to play 501 snaps because of injuries at cornerback, Crawley broke up eight passes, but he also had trouble fighting for the ball at times when his coverage was otherwise perfect.
"Let’s look at this realistically and say that Ken Crawley was an undrafted free agent out of Colorado who was thrust into a role that quite honestly he wasn’t ready for at that time," Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said earlier this year. "We all recognized that he had ability."
Crawley returned to the Saints this offseason and suddenly faced a far deeper position group at cornerback. Delvin Breaux and P.J. Williams were healthy again after missing large chunks of his rookie year; veteran Sterling Moore was back, and New Orleans drafted Lattimore.
Breaux broke his fibula in training camp, but when the season began, the Saints chose to go with Williams and fellow second-year man De'Vante Harris to start the season.
"It just motivated me to get back out there," Crawley said. "At practice, I just kept putting my foot on the pedal, just kept competing with these guys."
Injuries to Lattimore and Moore gave Crawley the opportunity in Charlotte, and he has put a vise grip on the position since the interception in London.
Crawley, who admittedly has missed a few other chances for interceptions, has broken up 14 passes, and although he's had trouble at times with tackling and penalty flags, he's been excellent in bump-and-run, the perfect complement to Lattimore, who also excels in man-to-man coverage.
"Having guys like that allows you to have more versatility on defense," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. "When you struggle to cover, then you can only pressure in a zone fashion or in a way you could protect players. Having the ability to play man-to-man and play with that kind of versatility to pressure does give you more options."
After years of searching, New Orleans suddenly has a young tandem of shutdown cornerbacks on either side of the field.
"I told everybody that in training camp, I liked how he was playing," Lattimore said. "He’s quick, he's instinctive. I hope we can all be together for a long time, become one of the best back ends in the league."
Crawley is the only one of the four Colorado-bound Warriors in the NFL.
Walker, who played his final season at Montana State, had a tryout with the San Francisco 49ers this year, but he's moved on to work in government. Wilson finished up his career at Syracuse as a graduate transfer last fall. Harrington was forced to give up football due to injury after two years in Boulder, but he used his time at Colorado to co-found Marvel Capital Group, a private equity and real estate venture.
But they all believe signing with Colorado was worth it.
"A lot of those guys who we used to hang out with, we know not to hang out with because we’re just not on the same paths any more," Walker said. "Those guys, they’re in the streets. We’re living a positive lifestyle, playing football, working real jobs."
The difference hit home when Faison was arrested in Boulder.
"Even though that’s a loss, that’s a loss that he turned into a win," Walker said. "That’s what an L stands for. A loss is a lesson learned. ... The biggest takeaway is that you can’t trust everyone."
But Crawley has learned that he can be an example for others. A couple of weeks ago, he and Harrington went back and spoke to kids at several high schools in the D.C. area, and they frequently go back to Woodson to help inspire other kids to follow in their footsteps.
"Once you get out of that, you start to realize there’s so much more to the world," Harrington said. "It was a magnificent opportunity to get out, then come back and speak to those kids that were in my position when I was there and show them, look what Ken Crawley is doing out there. You can do the same thing."
All it takes is the right opportunity.