The Saints rode their secondary into the playoffs last season.
The reimagined offense played a big part and helped disguise some inefficiencies within the front seven since the team was often playing from ahead, but none of that would have been possible if the secondary didn’t keep points off the board.
New Orleans has a budding superstar in Marshon Lattimore, and Ken Crawley proved capable of being a No. 2 cornerback. Behind them, Marcus Williams, who will be remembered for the wrong reasons, also possesses the ability to be a star, and Vonn Bell should continue as a solid option at strong safety.
It only took three quarters for Drew Brees to silence his critics.
But that doesn’t mean this group couldn’t use help. The Saints could stand pat with what they have, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if New Orleans pounces on the opportunity to continue adding pieces to this group, especially if safety Kenny Vaccaro is not retained and decides to try his hand playing for another organization.
However, even with some gaps to fill, it’s hard to simulate panic over a group that held opposing quarterbacks to a 79 passer rating and was third in the NFL with 20 interceptions. And the players who are here should only continue to get better. Lattimore and Williams are coming off their rookie seasons, and Crawley and Bell are entering their third seasons.
This is more of a situation where more is always better than less, and New Orleans might be a piece or two away from having a truly elite secondary. And as we saw last season, improving there can help mask some deficiencies elsewhere.
The Saints have some important players in the secondary due to reach free agency. Vaccaro is the headliner, but cornerback Sterling Moore and safety Rafael Bush are also due to become unrestricted free agents.
Bush played on a minimal contract last season and was a valuable reserve. It could make sense to bring him back, especially if Vaccaro departs. It could make sense to retain Moore depending on the other moves made this offseason.
Sean Payton tipped his hand before the season even started.
One of the bigger decisions will be on how to move forward with Delvin Breaux. He’s set to reach restricted free agency, which means the Saints could attempt to keep him by offering him a tender, some of which would require another team to send compensation if they sign the cornerback. Breaux hasn’t played much the past two seasons due to injury, but he still has talent, and it could be worth finding out if he can return to form.
Will the Saints keep Vaccaro or allow him to walk?
The safety has shown that he is an extremely valuable player and his ability to play multiple positions, as well as cover slot receivers, has given the Saints flexibility within their scheme. But early indications are that Vaccaro will test the market, though that can change in an instant.
It will be fascinating to see what he's offered on the open market. Vaccaro was playing like a Pro Bowl player before he was slowed and eventually shut down with a groin injury. While he should have multiple suitors, if his market is weaker than anticipated, it could make it easier for the Saints to bring him back.
What happens here will drive other decisions. If Vaccaro leaves, New Orleans could look to add a slot cornerback or another safety.
Don’t be fooled
Many people will allow the final play of the season to paint Williams in a negative light. The rookie was one of the key reasons the Saints were even in the playoffs. His five interceptions tell a good portion of the story, but, like most safeties, much of his impact does not show up in traditional statistics.
One of the things that pop out when you dig a little deep is how rare it was for the cornerback to give up anything on go routes. Lattimore and Crawley combined to surrender one all season on 16 targets. A good portion of the credit needs to go to the cornerbacks for making plays, but Williams plays a part in that, too.
And credit to Crawley. He surrendered three go routes himself last season for 94 yards, according to Sports Info Solutions. His ability to better locate the ball in the air has helped him in this regard.
If New Orleans is going to keep ascending, Williams will need to shake the play off and not allow it to define him. Alvin Kamara and Lattimore get all the hype, but he’s a massive piece of the foundation and, save for one moment, had an extremely successful rookie year.
New Orleans could justify using an early pick in the draft, or assets in free agency, to acquire a player at either safety or cornerback. It might even be a priority if Vaccaro walks.