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John DeShazier: Clear vision helped rookies find success on Saints defense in 2017

Saints Road to the Draft presented by Dixie Light

Indianapolis – Three rookie starters.

Not overall; on defense alone.

That was the hand New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen played to open last season, with Marshon Lattimore at cornerback, Marcus Williams at safety and Alex Anzalone at linebacker. And it was one of the best hands the Saints ever have played.

"That's probably the first time that I've ever seen it and gone through it," Allen said Friday at the NFL Scouting Combine. "But I think that again is a credit to our scouting staff. They did a great job of identifying guys that really come in and fit into our system and fit into a vision for what we want to be as a defense. And I think when you have a clear vision for how a player fits, then you have a chance for early success.

"I don't know if you know for sure how they're going to fit in, but you've got a pretty good idea. Obviously, our scouting department does a tremendous job of identifying talent, I think we do a pretty good job of trying to clearly identify a vision for a player and how they can fit into our system and how they can help us. I think when you have talented players and you have a clear vision for what they can do and how they fit, then that leads to success for not only them as individuals, but for us as a team."

There was an across-the-board jump in success, including points allowed (20.4, down from 28.4 in 2016), yards allowed (336.5, down from 375.4), interceptions (20, up from nine) and sacks (42, up from 31). The emphasis was to not only add talented players, but also smart players.

"I think that (Coach) Sean (Payton), (General Manager) Mickey (Loomis), (Assistant GM/College Scouting Director) Jeff (Ireland) – those guys, they've really made a concerted effort to try to increase the intelligence of our football team," Allen said. "Because smart players win in this league.

"And that was something that we really wanted to do and tried to do, and I think our guys did a great job of going out and finding guys that not only have athletic ability, but also have the football intelligence that helps us be able to compete at the highest level."

Two rookies helped the Saints' defense compete at that level throughout the season (Anzalone injured his shoulder in the fourth game and was lost for the rest of the season). Lattimore (five interceptions) and Williams (four) combined for as many interceptions as the Saints had the entire previous season.

The first- and second-round picks (Lattimore, then Williams) proved to be worth their draft positions.

"When you look at those guys as far as the athleticism, there was no question that they could compete at this level," secondary coach Aaron Glenn said. "And then as you continue to move forward with those guys and you understand how they think as far as football players, it was a no-brainer that those guys were starters for us. With guys like that, those guys are foundational pieces for you to continue to grow. I think right now, when you continue to look at guys, you continue to look at guys that look like that, and act like that, and hopefully end up being like that. Those two guys are outstanding players."

Glenn, a three-time Pro Bowl cornerback who had 41 interceptions (six returned for touchdowns) in a 15-year career, understands the task it is to start as a rookie. He started all 15 games he played as a rookie.

"It's tough," he said. "But the thing is the mentality of the player that you get. I think that's one thing we looked at as far as Marshon, was the mentality.

"He has that mentality of, listen, just line me up against anybody and I'm going to go play. And if he gets beat, he doesn't care, he's going to come right back in a guy's face and continue to compete. That's just that competitive edge, that competitive balance that you want as far as a corner. He brings that to the table, and all of our guys do that."

Allen said the confidence that the Saints had in the secondary picks was rewarded.

"We had lofty expectations for both of those players, and I think probably they both exceeded a little bit as to how quickly I thought they would be able to acclimate to our league and the amount of plays that they were able to make," Allen said. "We felt like they were really good athletes and smart football players, but, man, this league is a tough league. And for those guys, as rookies, to be able to come in and have the success that they did really is a testament to their work ethic and how they went about doing their job."

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