Saints 2021 Preview, Part 7: The secondary

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Panthers-Saints 2020
Saints defensive backs Marshon Lattimore, Marcus Williams and C.J. Gardner-Johnson converge on Panthers wide receiver D.J. Moore (Photo: Parker Waters).

The New Orleans Saints are beginning their most significant transition in 15 years. 

Drew Brees has retired and a dozen other key players from last year’s team are gone for a variety of reasons.  

As the start of the 2021 training camp looms in late July, the four-time defending NFC South champion Saints are still one of the more talented teams in the NFL. Sean Payton is still one of the longest-tenured and most-successful coaches in the league. 

But things are changing as New Orleans ventures into the post-Brees era. 

Crescent City Sports takes a comprehensive look at this transition in this series as a build-up to the start of training camp.

One of the biggest questions facing the New Orleans Saints this preseason is who will replace Janoris Jenkins as the starting left cornerback.

Will it be 12-year veteran Patrick Robinson? Or a younger veteran such as P.J. Williams or Ken Crawley? Or rookie third-round draft choice Paulson Adebo?

Or will it be someone else – perhaps someone not yet on the roster with the start of training camp looming next week?

The Saints have been in the market for a veteran at cornerback ever since they released Jenkins in a salary-cap move. Jenkins has since signed with Tennessee.

The organization was cash-strapped for much of the off-season and did more subtraction than addition to the roster.

But they have freed up enough money to sign a veteran, though one prime candidate – Richard Sherman – seemingly took himself out of consideration with his arrest for domestic violence last week. He pleaded not guilty to five misdemeanor charges related to a domestic incident at his in-laws’ house.

That’s not the only off-the-field incident that could have an impact on the Saints’ secondary. Starting right cornerback Marshon Lattimore could face disciplinary action for his off-season arrest on a felony gun charge in Ohio.

So it’s anyone’s guess who the starting cornerbacks will be when the Saints open the season against Green Bay on Sept. 12 in the Superdome.

The picture is much clearer at safety as Malcolm Jenkins (strong) and Marcus Williams (free) are entrenched as starters and C.J. Gardner-Johnson established himself as a playmaker in his second NFL season in 2020.

“We have lot of veteran guys who are willing and able to help new guys coming in and mold them,” Marcus Williams said.

Gardner-Johnson said he “felt like a kid” last season after his coaches told him “to go out there and just play football and relax.

“A lot of people play this game and go out there all tight,” Gardner-Johnson said. “I’m me. So when they said relax, slow down, just understand what you’re doing, that’s when I found my groove.”

The nickelback might as well be considered a starter because the Saints utilize a fifth defensive back roughly as much as they utilize a third linebacker. Robinson and P.J. Williams have been the primary nickelbacks the last two seasons, but if one or both are pressed into duty at corner, there will be a trickle-down effect.

First-year secondary coach Kris Richard praised Lattimore, the 2017 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and a three-time Pro Bowler, for his “incredible competitive mind-set and athleticism.”

Adebo was first-team all Pac-12 Conference at Stanford two seasons ago before sitting out 2020 to focus on the draft after the league reversed course late in the summer and decided to play a shortened season.

I think we’ve got to get him out there and throw as much at him as we possibly can and see how he responds to it,” defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said. “He’s big, long, can run, is smart, a lot of the characteristics that we like in a corner.”

Adebo said he’s “champing at the bit” to put on pads after sitting out last season.

The Saints re-signed safety J.T. Gray, who has been a special-teams standout, though they lost another special-teams leader, cornerback, Justin Hardee, to the New York Jets in free agency.

Other departures were safeties D.J. Swearinger and Karl Bademosi, and the Saints filled out the depth chart with cornerbacks Grant Haley, Keith Washington Jr., Deuce Wallace, Bryce Thompson and Lawrence Woods and safety Eric Burrell

The most significant addition to the secondary was Richard, who was brought in after Aaron Glenn was hired as defensive coordinator in Detroit.

Richard was the position coach for Seattle’s “Legion of Doom” secondary that helped the Seahawks win the Super Bowl after the 2013 season and return to the title game after the 2014 season. He was defensive backs coach and passing game coordinator in Dallas for two seasons before sitting out last season after Jason Garrett and his staff were fired.

Head coach Sean Payton said Richard “did a good job” as a candidate and cited Richard’s experience, attention to detail and teaching ability as key attributes.

Allen said he has “a lot of respect for” Richard.

“I’ve admired his work,” Allen said. “He’s highly competitive. He’s extremely intelligent. He brings a championship pedigree with him that gives him instant credibility within that room.”

Allen said he’s learning from Richard, whose background is with schemes different from those Allen is most familiar with.

Richard called the opportunity to join the Saints staff “a no-brainer.”

“A lot of defense is about intensity and coverage,” Malcolm Jenkins said. “(Richard) is someone that is going to push this group, bringing that intensity to a group that has a ton of potential. It needs somebody to always be pushing the best out of us.”


See each part of the feature series leading up to Saints Training Camp here.

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Les East

CCS/106.1 FM/Daily Iberian

Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…

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