Saints banking on young defensive backs learning quickly

Credit: David Grunfeld

Credit: David Grunfeld

Now entering his second NFL season, Delvin Breaux has played more regular-season snaps with the Saints defense than any other cornerback on New Orleans' roster.

The question now facing the Saints is the extent to which their relative youth and inexperience at a critical defensive skill position will be a liability.

On the flip side, New Orleans really doesn't have far to fall on that side of the ball; the Saints have ranked second-to-last in the NFL in yards allowed the past two seasons.

"I like the fact that we're young, but I also like the fact that we're improving back there," Saints coach Sean Payton said of the secondary after practice Monday evening.

"What we try to do is really evaluate what we're seeing on a daily basis and that is the production — how they're performing on one-on-ones, how are they doing in the team (drills) and seven-on-sevens and constantly grading that type of film."

The Saints went into last season with two experienced veterans — Keenan Lewis and Brandon Browner — as their top cornerbacks. Browner, a free-agent bust in New Orleans, was released in the offseason.

Lewis, who has been limited by a hip injury, was released on Monday after being informed of the move on the eve of New Orleans' preseason game at Houston on Saturday.

Against the Texans, P.J. Williams, who hasn't made his regular-season debut yet, moved into a starting role. He gave up a touchdown, but responded later with an interception in which he twisted in the air to snag an attempted back-shoulder throw in the end zone.

A 2015 third-round draft pick out of Florida State who spent his rookie year on injured reserve, Williams said he welcomes the prospect of starting in his first regular-season game against Oakland on Sept. 11. He expects opponents to test him with looks or moves he might not have seen before, and he expects to adjust as needed.

"If they make a play on me, my thing is to come back stronger and not let it happen again. It's definitely a mental thing and I think I'm mentally tough to do it," Williams said. "You've got to bounce back and focus up and do what the coach is teaching you and also just play off instincts."

Shortly before releasing Lewis, who'd been the Saints' top cornerback in 2013 and 2014, the Saints added a veteran to the roster in free agent 11-year veteran Cortland Finnegan, although his roster spot is not necessarily assured. He is competing for snaps with young players such as Damian Swann, De'Vante Harris and Ken Crawley.

Swann, a 2015 fifth-round draft choice, showed promise as a nickel back as a rookie, but missed much of last season because of multiple concussions. Harris and Crawley are undrafted rookies, but both have made plays.

Harris, out of Texas A&M, made an interception Monday of Drew Brees' pass that was bobbled by tight end Josh Hill. Crawley, out of Colorado, has had several interceptions in 11-on-11 drills, including a difficult, leaping interception of Brees on a deep pass along the sideline earlier in camp.

"In a good way, we've got some young free agents that each day I feel like they're making improvements," Payton said.

Payton said the team needed to move on from Lewis because he hadn't been "available" for about a year and it was unclear when he would be, if ever.

By releasing Lewis, it allowed him to avoid going on injured reserve and sign with another club rather than missing the entire season. Payton also noted that he doesn't view Breaux as a typical second-year player because he played in the CFL after returning from a neck injury that prevented him from playing in college with LSU.

The Saints are more experienced at safety with Jairus Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro as starters, but the next two safeties behind them are rookie Vonn Bell and first-year NFL player Erik Harris, who came from the CFL on Breaux's recommendation.

Payton said he expects both Bell and Harris to play, and Bell said he doesn't see a problem with the Saints entering the regular season with as many as five defensive backs on the roster who've never taken a meaningful NFL snap.

"There's going to be some growing pains with everything you do," Bell said. "It's just having some confidence out here, believing in yourself, believing in everyone around you to do their job and everything's going to take care of itself."

Notes: Several Saints players who sat out against the Texans on Saturday night were back at practice on Monday. They included linebacker Stephone Anthony, defensive tackle John Jenkins, fullback Austin Johnson, and receivers Brandin Cooks and Willie Snead.