Hiring 'Legion of Boom' architect a good start, but decisions loom for Saints' secondary

METAIRIE, La. -- Think quarterback is the New Orleans Saints' biggest issue this offseason? Well you’re right, obviously. Drew Brees is expected to retire, for crying out loud.

But in any other year, the Saints’ secondary would be under an intense spotlight.

The Saints switched secondary coaches -- landing former Seattle Seahawks “Legion of Boom” architect Kris Richard after Aaron Glenn was hired as the Detroit Lions' defensive coordinator.

Starting free safety Marcus Williams and his backup P.J. Williams are both unrestricted free agents.

And perhaps most importantly, No. 1 cornerback Marshon Lattimore is heading into the final year of his contract and likely to seek an extension in the vicinity of $20 million per year.

The timing isn’t ideal since the Saints are facing severe salary-cap limitations. So they might need to decide soon whether they want to commit to Lattimore or use him as a trade chip.

Complicating things further is the fact safety Malcolm Jenkins is 33 years old and No. 2 cornerback Janoris Jenkins is 32. So third-year nickel safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson is the only prominent member of the secondary locked into the picture beyond this season.

If New Orleans lets either Lattimore or Marcus Williams go, their replacements should become a top draft priority.

The Saints' secondary has developed from a liability to one of their greatest strengths over the past four years -- a huge reason why they've won four straight NFC South titles. But they have their work cut out for them to keep it that way.

Here’s a breakdown of what lies ahead, with insight from ESPN analyst and former NFL safety Matt Bowen:

What changes with Richard?

Dennis Allen remains the defensive coordinator -- and the Saints’ defense has been awfully good the past two to three years. So there's no reason to expect a shift in philosophy toward more of the Cover 3 schemes Richard’s defenses featured so prominently in Seattle.

According to Bowen, the Saints played Cover 3 (three-deep zone) on 12.8% of their defensive snaps in 2020, which ranked 30th in the NFL. Meanwhile, the Saints played 2-man (two deep safeties with man coverage underneath) on 22.2% of their snaps, which led the league by a wide margin.

Regardless, all defenses play multiple schemes. And Richard will bring an element the Saints value greatly -- physical, aggressive play from his DBs. That was the case when he worked his way up from assistant secondary coach to defensive coordinator in Seattle from 2010-17 and when he called plays as the Dallas Cowboys' passing game coordinator from 2018-19.

You may recall the Seahawks shutting down New Orleans twice on their way to the Super Bowl in the 2013 regular season and playoffs. Or, more recently, Dallas’ defense stifling the Saints during a 13-10 Cowboys win in 2018 and a 12-10 Saints win in 2019.

“If you’re a secondary coach, you want the (types of) guys that you like,” Bowen said. “What did he have in Seattle? He had a rangy post defender (Earl Thomas). Well, you already have one if you re-sign him -- it’s Marcus Williams. If I’m Kris Richard, I’d want him.

“He had an intimidator as a box safety (Kam Chancellor). Now the game has changed; you can’t just be a downhill top-down player in the box. But you do have a guy with an incredible sense of urgency and competitiveness in C.J. Gardner-Johnson, who is more of their slot safety but can play at the strong safety position.

“You also have Malcolm Jenkins. His best football is when he’s near the line of scrimmage, in my opinion. So that kind of fits. And at corner he’s got Marshon Lattimore and Jackrabbit (Janoris Jenkins).”

Can Saints afford Lattimore?

The short answer is yes -- if they feel he’s worth it. The Saints could actually lower Lattimore’s 2021 cap figure by signing him to a long-term extension and back-loading the cap charges. He is currently scheduled to receive a fifth-year option salary of $10.244 million, all of which will count against the cap.

The bigger question is whether or not the Saints believe Lattimore is worth nearly $20 million per year and $70 million guaranteed (the bar set by Los Angeles Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey and Baltimore Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey in 2020).

Lattimore has battled a little too much inconsistency to be rated at the highest tier of NFL cornerbacks. But he is awfully close after being named the 2017 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and being selected to three Pro Bowls.

“I would [invest in him],” Bowen said. “I know he didn’t have his best season, but he has the traits of a top-five corner. He’d be tough to replace, man.”

At 6-foot, 192-pound, Lattimore has elite speed. He is also a physical corner who can excel in man coverage. And he has always done his best work when matched up against elite receivers. Lattimore has been particularly exceptional against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and receiver Mike Evans -- a pretty important matchup these days in the NFC South.

It’s unclear if Lattimore will consider holding out. But he saw fellow Saints stars Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara get paid heading into the final years of their rookie deals in 2019 and 2020. So he has every right to expect the same timetable.

If the Saints aren’t willing to make that long-term investment, they need to seriously consider trading him -- to save money and because he could bring back one of the highest returns of anyone on their roster.

Can Saints afford Marcus Williams?

Again, they’ll make the cap math work if they think Williams is worth it.

What remains to be seen is how the rest of the NFL values the former second-round pick, who also battled some inconsistency during his first three seasons. More than $10 million per year is a realistic target for Williams after the Arizona Cardinals’ Budda Baker set a record for safeties at $14.75 million per year in 2020.

“He’s got range over the top, very graceful from the middle of the field ... his game speed is more than enough,” said Bowen, who believes the 6-foot-1, 195-pounder is a good fit for the Saints’ current scheme -- and would be a good fit if they decided to play more Cover 3.

And after Williams struggled with his tackling earlier in his career, he improved in 2020 while also making some of his most forceful plays to separate receivers from the ball.

“He was a more physical player, he took better angles to the football,” Bowen said. “I like him a lot.”