In four days, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell will step towards the podium at Radio City Music Hall in New York to announce that the New Orleans Saints will draft….
And that is where the story ends for now.
For the first time since 2009, the Saints will be picking within the top 20 of the NFL draft. Last time they landed current starting free safety Malcolm Jenkins and this time the secondary appears to be the priority once again. Top tier talents such as cornerback Desmond Trufant, safety Kenny Vaccaro, safety Jonathan Cyprien and outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo will all be tantalizing prospects for the Saints in the middle of the first round.
Undoubtedly, the Saints’ most prized target is Texas safety Vaccaro though.
According to esteemed draft analyst Sigmund Bloom,the 22-year-old defensive back has the potential to be one of the best safeties in the league. For the New Orleans Saints, a team that ranked 31st in points allowed last season giving up 28.4 per game, Vaccaro could fill a massive need. The Saints fired Steve Spagnuolo after a desperately disappointing season, replacing him with former Cleveland Browns and Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, but in reality, the Saints’ biggest issue last year was their lack of talent rather than their coaching.
Ryan is going to bring a very aggressive approach to Louisiana. He may have slackened off from his blitzing with the Cowboys last season, but his overall philosophy is one of pressure and creating pressure from different areas of the field. Ryan isn’t being welcomed by high-quality pass-rushers in New Orleans, like he had in Dallas with DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer. Instead he will find a variety of different skill-sets and contributors who he will need to craft into a front seven capable of allowing his unit to compete.
Even though they could desperately use an outside linebacker to rush the passer or a three-down inside linebacker, the priority for the Saints is to re-tool and overrun and outmatched secondary. That process has already begun with the addition of Keenan Lewis, a former starter of the Pittsburgh Steelers who arrived in free agency. Lewis gives the Saints a leading cornerback, which will allow them to flip Jabari Greer to the second spot or mix-and-match him and Patrick Robinson depending on who they are trying to cover.
With the cornerback position improved, the Saints will be desperate to replace strong safety Roman Harper with a better player in space. Harper is an in-the-box safety who is awful in coverage. He is simply too slow to play in Ryan’s scheme and would be forced to blitz more often than is ideal. Even in Spagnuolo’s more passive approach, Harper rushed the passer 69 times last year, more than three times more than any other defensive back on the roster. With a player like that on the field, the Saints not only have a major liability in coverage, but they would be too predictable in an defense based on it’s unpredictability.
Having Harper on the field limits what the versatile Malcolm Jenkins is able to do. Jenkins is talented enough to move around the field and cover different types of receivers playing different coverages, but so long as Harper is on the field, he has to be the deep-lying safety because the team’s cornerbacks are not good enough to be left in single coverage.
Harper seriously struggled last year for the Saints. While Pro Football Focus grades always need to be taken in context, Harper’s paint a pretty accurate and desperate picture of his season last year.
Limited athletes simply cannot play safety in the NFL anymore. Even the most intelligent of players will struggle significantly if he is even a half-step slow. That is largely because of the developing variety in offenses that will stretch the field more vertically and horizontally, while throwing different schemes and play-designs at the defense on a consistent basis. The influx of physical freaks playing the tight end position also doesn’t help.
Harper is a very limited athlete, but he is also not an intelligent player or a quick-reader of the game. This results in some gaudy numbers from an analytic point of view.
When you consider that Steve Spagnuolo played a relatively safety friendly scheme, it takes an especially poor player to put up these types of numbers in coverage. Notably, Harper only gave up two touchdowns on the season, but that is because his real weaknesses are exposed in what he gives up easily rather than what he sacrifices down the field.
Because of his inferior talent and physical traits, Harper doesn’t always play with the aggression that is required of the position. When he is at the line of scrimmage he is an aggressive blitzer and is always one of the first to react to the running game. But when put in space, his hesitance shows.
This play epitomizes Harper’s limitations.
The Saints’ defense only rushes three and drops everyone else in coverage. The coverage on the back-end is either a cover-2 or deep quarters. Harper is the furthest back defender. Harper is right to gain depth after the snap, but he is a full four yards deeper than Malcolm Jenkins when Eli Manning reaches the bottom of his drop. He has dropped too far and created a gap that Victor Cruz is able to run into.
The cornerback on the outside either lets him go expecting Harper to be further up the field, or he simply blows his coverage and can’t stick with Cruz running inside. Either way, the short route run by the tight end into the flat should free Harper to focus in on Cruz and the threat of him beating them deep was never so great for him to be as deep as he was.
Manning has a huge window to complete an easy pass for an 11 yard gain to his receiver. On the normal telecast, this play doesn’t show off Harper’s failures because he has not given up the deep ball. Not giving up the deep ball is always the right decision, but not when it is at the expense of giving up an easy 11 yards underneath on first and 15.
Harper’s lack of aggression is a result of his lack of speed. He can’t be further up the field because he doesn’t have the range to recover if a receiver gets level with him, while his closing speed is essentially non-existent so he can’t make a play on the ball if he is not already in the vicinity of it when it is thrown.
When he is not blitzing, Rob Ryan looks to play a lot of cover-two, at least he did last season, and that means that the Saints’ safeties will be put in these situations on a regular basis. Because of his natural athleticism, Vaccaro doesn’t have the same hesitation that causes Harper to sacrifice easy yardage underneath. According to Bloom, “Vaccaro is a fluid, gifted athlete, with the best combination of straight-line speed and explosiveness in the draft. He plays and thinks at a very high speed. His change of direction/quickness is good enough to cover slot receivers man-to-man, and his range is good enough to be the last line of defense against the pass.
Vaccaro in this situation could be more aggressive than Harper without being at a greater risk of giving up a touchdown to a double move. It’s that athleticism that will also make him a very versatile piece for Ryan.
Harper is considered an effective blitzer as a defensive back, but in reality a defensive back is largely unblocked and production only comes from a bad offensive read or good coverage on the back-end. The value of Harper’s pass-rushing ability is easily off-set by Vaccaro’s greater closing speed and agility. But again, it is his coverage ability that will really make the difference for the Saints.
This image is from the Cowboys v. Bills game in 2011. The Bills have come out with four wide receivers, three to the left side of the formation, one to the right and a running-back to the right side of the quarterback in the backfield. Both of the Cowboys’ safeties are circled.
While every quarterback, and person, reads formations differently. This formation hints that the Cowboys are playing man coverage across the board with a blitz coming off the edge and one or both of the inside linebackers dropping into a zone.
The Bills obviously expected the Cowboys to blitz to their left-hand-side, as the running-back next to Ryan Fitzpatrick jumped across his line of vision instantly. However, they didn’t anticipate how many defenders would be blitzing from that side of the field, because their offensive line slid to the right side. This is obvious because the center immediately looks to his right side at the snap of the ball and motions to go that way.
However, the Cowboys are only rushing one player to that side. The left defensive end immediately dropped back into coverage at the snap of the ball, while the safety at the line of scrimmage is now sprinting to the deep center of the field. The linebacker who originally lined up over the Bills’ right tackle is sprinting across the formation to cover the inside slot receiver, while the middle linebacker is attacking the left tackle on a blitz.
Both inside cornerbacks are rushing the Bills’ blindside, with one attacking the left tackle’s inside shoulder and the other running past him outside.
The confusion of the Bills’ offensive line means that their left tackle, left guard and running back are being asked to account for four rushers, while their center, right guard and right tackle only has two players to withstand. The resulting coverage has dropped the safety at the line of scrimmage to deep center field, almost as deep as the deepest defender at the bottom of the screen, while the free safety has moved up into single coverage on a wide receiver.
For this play to work, the safety at the line of scrimmage has to have the speed to get deep in a hurry and the other safety needs to be trusted in single coverage without help. Roman Harper can’t do either of those things, but Malcolm Jenkins can and Kenny Vaccaro has the potential to.
Without two safeties with that athleticism, Ryan’s whole zone blitz package would not be viable.
Nor would this play have ever been successful.
This is a common concept for Ryan’s defense.
Not only does it lead to sacks, incompletions or interceptions on individual plays, but it also throws off opponent’s play-calling when done effectively because it’s almost impossible to read the defense and feel comfortable with what you are seeing.
The athleticism on the field allows the defense’s different pieces to swap positions within an instant after the snap. The 1st X is where the safety was before the snap, the second where he was at the snap and the third where he was an instant after the snap. Eli Manning was keying in on the opposite side of the field, after reading the initial defense.
That read combined with the speed coming off the edge forces Manning to flip the ball over his running-back’s head just to avoid being sacked.
Disrupting the rhythm of any offense is always desirable for a defensive coordinator. When the offense has a liability in coverage to pick on, then there is no chance of the defense doing that. They will always be in position to react to plays rather than set the tone and establish a controlled recklessness that forces the offense to make plays that they don’t initially gameplan to make.
The Saints could still have a weak-spot in their secondary with Jabari Greer or Patrick Robinson on the field, but it is easier to hide poor cornerback play with two very athletic and talented safeties and a somewhat decent pass-rush. Despite their struggles overall as a unit last year, the Saints’ front seven has enough talent to get by in Rob Ryan’s scheme.
In Ryan’s scheme, they will be capable of sufficiently complementing an offense that is expected to be very efficient. They will give up big plays and concede points, but so long as that number of points per game is significantly lower than last year and they can create more turnovers as they have in the past, then they should be able to return to their winning ways this season.
That is, providing that they do indeed improve the safety position.
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