The Saints' defensive backfield has gone through a dramatic facelift recently, with new players crowding the depth chart at every position. Coach Sean Payton aimed to not only infuse the secondary with talented additions, but also create a competitive atmosphere to push the pace of improvement in the club's pass defense.
The handful of new acquisitions in this weekend's draft and since the start of free agency are expected to ratchet the daily practice battles for playing time up a notch, thus improving the play of the entire secondary. All will be learning the new, more aggressive coverage schemes instituted by defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.
We're excited that we were really able to help the secondary in free agency and in the draft," said Payton. "You don't know if that can happen when the season ends, but I think we've had some key additions that will certainly add to the competition and add to the upgrade and performance of the positions. That's certainly what we are hopeful of."
The Saints secondary should be dramatically different in 2009 than the unit that was last seen on the field in the final weeks of last season. In the first round, New Orleans selected CB Malcolm Jenkins of Ohio State 14th overall, considered the top defensive back in the NFL Draft. A two-time All-American, Jenkins started 45 games during his college career and excels at man-to-man coverage.
Jenkins, a three-time All-Big 10 performer, has the versatility to play both cornerback and safety, but he will open his career in New Orleans at cornerback, where he had 11 interceptions for the Buckeyes.
"We think he's the top corner in the draft," said Executive Vice President/General Manager Mickey Loomis. "It's a position where we have a need, and he has the versatility we think to play safety if we decide to move him there. But we're going to start him off at cornerback and see what we have."
At cornerback, Jenkins will be joined by Tracy Porter, the Saints' second-round pick in 2008. Porter was an opening-day starter last season and one of the club's most promising defenders until suffering a broken wrist in the fifth game. Prior to landing on injured reserve, the Louisiana native had 32 tackles, an interception, a sack and had deflected five passes.
One of the Saints' key free-agent signings in the offseason was inking CB Jabari Greer to a four-year contract. Greer has opened 23 games over the last two years for the Buffalo Bills. Known for his speed – the sixth-year veteran was an NCAA Champion as a hurdler at Tennessee – last season he returned both of his interceptions for touchdowns.
Also competing for a starting spot will be CB Randall Gay, signed as a free agent prior to last season after a four-year stint with the New England Patriots. Gay had a solid 2008, recording a career-high 65 stops and a team-leading 17 pass defenses while starting 12 games.
The safety position has also been bolstered by new acquisitions. Darren Sharper, who has 54 career interceptions, was signed in March and will bring leadership and the ability to make plays in the deepest reaches of the secondary. A four-time Pro Bowl selection, Sharper spent eight seasons with the Green Bay Packers before signing with Minnesota in 2005.
The club also went with youth to improve the safety position, drafting S Malcolm Jenkins/Chip Vaughn.aspx">Chip Vaughn from Wake Forest, who scouts considered an outstanding combination of size (6-1, 221 pounds) and speed (4.42 in the 40). He was an All-ACC selection as a senior, starting 12 games and ranking third on the team with 87 tackles. Vaughn added three interceptions and recovered a pair of fumbles. The Demon Deacons tied for 12th in the nation in pass defense in 2008.
"Chip has outstanding speed and really long arms," said Payton. "He has really good range, has long leverage, he's tall and he can run. Those are additions that we think can help us in the secondary."
New Orleans will also move Usama Young – a cornerback through the first two seasons of his career after being drafted in the third round in 2007 – to safety in 2009. Young's mixture of size (6-0, 200) and quick feet project well at his new position. When Young departed Kent State, several scouts considered safety his eventual NFL position.
Playing primarily as an extra defensive back, Young had a career-high 27 stops in 2008, along with a pair of interceptions.
"That's the direction we're headed," said Payton. "The thought process is for us to move Usama back there. I've had the chance to talk to him about it and I think that's something we want to do."
The Saints also signed veteran S Pierson Prioleau as a free agent, who is entering his 11th season. Prioleau has been a top special teams player throughout his career, though last year for the Jaguars he had 18 stops on defense and started one game at safety. He has been a key performer on three teams coached by Williams.