The potential loss of Marcus Williams could just be the tip of the iceberg for the New Orleans Saints.
The days of the fabled 2017 draft class of the New Orleans Saints all being on rookie contracts is sadly over. Alvin Kamara got his big extension this past offseason, Ryan Ramcyzk and Marshon Lattimore are heading into their fifth-year options and Marcus Williams, Trey Hendrickson and Alex Anzalone are all scheduled to hit free agency. The Saints have big decisions to make in the near future about these players, and without the cap room to sign all of these players to extensions, the secondary could be the part of the team that gets hit the most by the Saints’ cap issues.
First of all, the elephant in the room in the Saints secondary is the impending free agency of Marcus Williams. Since the disastrous end to his rookie season in 2017 and subsequent sophomore slump in 2018, Williams has blossomed into one of, if not the most important member of the Saints secondary. Heading into the 2020 season, Williams was just some tackling improvement away from becoming one of the best free safeties in the NFL, and he did just that, only missing two tackles (lowest since his arrival to the NFL) while contributing three interceptions and three pass breakups. His center fielding presence in the Saints Cover 2 system is incredibly valuable, and with the Saints roughly $90 million over the salary cap, bringing him back is going to be next to impossible.
The Saints “easiest” strategy will be heading into the 2021 NFL Draft with a priority of finding another Marcus Williams, which is must easier said than done. In my opinion, the Saints should look to Syracuse’s Andre Cisco or Oregon’s Jevon Holland in the second round to potentially replace Williams, a pair of ball-hawking safeties in this upcoming class (I’m personally a massive fan of Cisco, and feel he would be an undisputed first-round pick had he not torn his ACL two games into the 2020 season and/or played somewhere a little more prestigious than Syracuse).
Secondly, the Saints could very soon have a Marshon Lattimore conundrum on their hands. When the Saints picked Lattimore 11th overall in the 2017 draft, they hoped the Ohio State product would be their lockdown corner for years to come, and after Lattimore’s outrageously impressive rookie season, giving up just 583 yards on 43 catches and nabbing five interceptions while not allowing a single touchdown, the Saints thought they had him. However, reports of Lattimore’s work ethic caught up to him, and it seemed like he let the plaudits of his rookie season get the better of him, and Lattimore’s been slowly regressing ever since. Lattimore gave up eight touchdowns in 2020 along with a 103.1 passer rating and getting hit with 11 penalties, with each of those numbers being career highs.
Prior to the 2020 season, the Saints pulled off the no-brainer move of exercising Lattimore’s fifth-year option. Heading into a contract year in 2021, Lattimore needs to prove to a cap-strapped Saints team that he’s worth the investment, and that he can be their number one corner that he showed he could be back in 2017. Lattimore might be a piece that hits free agency if other players prove more valuable than him, and the Saints might have to search for another outside cornerback.
Even if the Saints bring back Lattimore (which I ultimately think they will), the Saints need someone across from him. Janoris Jenkins filled that role nicely in 2020 and while the Saints should keep him around as long as possible, he’s going to be 33-years-old at the start of the 2021 season. With the Saints in the aforementioned cap issues, cutting Jenkins could save about $7 million in cap space, and their hand might be forced in letting go of the former Pro-Bowler.
Speaking of older players with the last name Jenkins, the player that played the most snaps on the Saints defense in 2020 was the former-Saint-turned-Eagle-turned-back-into-a-Saint Malcolm Jenkins. Jenkins played 1,155 defensive snaps, with 300+ each as a free safety and as a box safety. His versatility is key to the Saints Cover 2 system, however, like Janoris Jenkins, his age is likely to catch up to him in the next few years (and some are arguing it already is). The Saints will need to find a replacement for him sooner rather than later. Going back to the NFL Draft route, if the Saints spend their first-round pick on a safety, it would likely be TCU’s Trevon Moehrig, as ESPN’s Mel Kiper has prophesized.
Going forward, there are only two players that the Saints can look at and pinpoint as long-term members of their secondary, Marshon Lattimore (whose status is up in question sooner rather than later) and C.J. Ceedy Gardner-Johnson. The post-Brees potential rebuild could be painful, and the Saints could find themselves having to rebuild the secondary alongside it quicker than they may had hoped.
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