This is the second stop in a series of Saints training camp battle articles. The Saints had a very solid defensive unit in the 2018 NFL season and look to continue to give opposing offenses problems. The cornerback position is headlined by the tandem of Marshon Lattimore and Eli Apple, two locks to fill the top spots on the depth chart. But after that, there are a few question marks. Let’s look at some of the guys vying for one of these coveted roster spots.
Marshon Lattimore and Eli Apple
As previously mentioned, Lattimore and Apple are one of the top cornerback tandems in the NFL and are locks to take the top two spots on the depth chart, barring any unforeseen turn of events.
Lattimore finished the 2018 season with two interceptions, 12 passes defended, four forced fumbles, and 3 fumble recoveries. He is one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL and is not challenged by opposing quarterbacks very often, and for good reason.
Eli Apple was acquired by the Saints from the Giants in October of 2018 to help a depleted secondary. Apple filled in very nicely as the Saints second cornerback, recording two interceptions, nine passes defended, and one fumble recovery in 10 games in New Orleans. He has struggled with penalties throughout his career, but he is a very solid fit next to Lattimore.
P.J. Williams was a third-round selection in the 2015 NFL Draft out of Florida State. He has had a very inconsistent career thus far but signed a one-year deal to stay with the team this offseason. Williams is often extremely overwhelmed when thrown into the outside cornerback role, giving up many big plays throughout his career. He played much better as a slot cornerback once the Saints acquired Apple. He has been plagued with injuries throughout his time in NFL, which has limited him to 33 games in his four-year career. Williams will need to prove that he can be more consistent during training camp in order for the coaching staff to have faith in him as the starting slot cornerback role, due to the competition he may have at the position.
Former Saints 2010 first-round pick Patrick Robinson struggled his first time around with the team. After gaining experience while playing in San Diego, Indianapolis, and Philadelphia, he is back in New Orleans. He won a Super Bowl with the Eagles and looked like one of the league’s better slot corners in 2017. Robinson looked solid in 2018 before suffering a season-ending ankle injury in Week 3. He will be the main competitor to P.J. Williams for the slot cornerback job. If he is fully recovered from his injury and continues to play at the level he did in Philadelphia, he should start the season as the starting nickel corner for the Saints in 2019.
Chauncey Gardner-Johnson will be a very interesting player to keep an eye on during training camp. Many projected him as a potential first-round pick during the 2019 NFL Draft process, but he ended up sliding to the Saints in the fourth round. He is a very versatile player, playing both at safety and nickel cornerback during his time at Florida. He was all over the field, standing out as one of the best players on the field in almost every game. He is expected to make the Saints final roster and could contend for the slot corner role. Whether he plays at safety or cornerback, Gardner-Johnson will look to make plays all over the field and show the NFL why he was previously considered a first-round pick. This could be a huge steal for the Saints if he pans out.
Justin Hardee may not have proven to be a great option at cornerback entering his third year with the Saints, but he is one of the best special teamers in the league. He has filled in very sparingly at cornerback, recording one interception last season. He will have to prove to be more consistent during training camp in order to earn more time on the defensive side of the ball. Despite his defensive shortcomings, it will be hard for the Saints to dismiss him, solely due to his fantastic special team abilities.
Ken Crawley was a breakout star in 2017 for the Saints. He solidified the second cornerback role and was a pleasant surprise for the Saints. Entering his third season in 2018, there were high expectations for Crawley, but he did not live up to them. Opposing quarterbacks consistently targeted him and he was often beaten in coverage. This forced the Saints to trade for Apple, which strengthened the defense in a huge way. Crawley was benched before midseason and didn’t play many snaps for the remainder of the season. Because he was such a defensive liability in 2018, he has a lot to prove in training camp in order to have a small shot to make the final roster for the Saints.
The Saints signed Kayvon Webster this offseason. He played only two games for the Texans in 2017 after suffering an Achilles injury with the Rams in 2016. Webster had been a solid reserve option throughout his career with the Broncos and was having a very solid season with the Rams before his injury. He will look to fill some depth for the Saints in 2019 and provide a veteran presence on the team. It will be tough for him to make the roster due to the depth at the position already, but if he proves he is fully recovered from his injury, he may play some meaningful snaps in 2019.
The Saints signed Marcus Sherels from the Vikings more for his special teams prowess than his defensive abilities. The veteran is the Vikings’ franchise leader in punt return average and return touchdowns. He will fill a role that has been lacking on the Saints for many years, but the Saints hope they can get some good defensive play out of him to increase their depth at defensive back.
Saquan Hampton will have an uphill battle to make the Saints roster. A sixth-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft out of Rutgers University, he will have a much harder time making a name for himself than Gardner-Johnson will. It is not an impossible task though. Like Gardner-Johnson, he was a very versatile defender in college. He is a bit bigger than Chauney Gardner-Johnson and is very explosive on the field, which will make him a good matchup in the slot. If he carries over his impressive production from his college days, Hampton will make it hard for the Saints coaching staff to let him walk.
CB1: Marshon Lattimore
CB2: Eli Apple
CB3 (slot): Patrick Robinson
CB4: PJ Williams
CB5: Kayvon Webster
CB6: Justin Hardee
CB7: Marcus Sherels
** Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and Saquon Hampton will make the final roster at the safety position.