In the last week or two, one position has been particularly in the spotlight for the Saints – safety. Firstly, they signed an ex-CFL linebacker Marcus Ball to play at safety. They followed that up with the signing of potential future Hall-of-Fame cornerback Champ Bailey, amid whispers he could be shifting to safety. Finally, they matched Atlanta’s offer sheet to sign safety Rafael Bush, who was tendered as a restricted free agent. What does this mean for the future of the position for the Saints? Let’s break it down.
For starters, Champ isn’t going to be playing safety. Larry Holder of the New Orleans Times-Picayune quoted GM Mickey Loomis as saying “you always have a need for good players and [cornerback]’s a valuable position” when asked if Champ would stick to playing cornerback. Translation? Champ will remain a cornerback for the foreseeable future.
That brings me to Rafael Bush. The Saints have two starters at safety already – 2013 rookie sensation Kenny Vaccaro and the most expensive free agent safety in history, Jairus Byrd. Being extremely cash-strapped, you’d think that paying Bush starter-calibre money ($4.5m over two years) to be a back-up to the aforementioned pair would be pointless for the Saints. You’d be wrong; that’s exactly what Loomis did.
Last season, the Saints used a third safety in the nickel package often, instead of a traditional nickel cornerback, as is widely considered to be the norm. They began the season with Malcolm Jenkins playing at free safety and Vaccaro at strong safety, and added Harper to play at strong safety in nickel situations (moving Vaccaro to the nickelback spot). The third safety is of great importance in New Orleans, as they ran the 4-2-5 formation (three safeties) more often than they ran the 4-3 or even the 3-4, their base defense. That’s why Bush was retained and paid as a starter.
Swapping Jenkins with Byrd and Harper with Bush gives us an idea of what the defensive backfield will look like this year for the Saints – Byrd at free safety and Vaccaro at strong safety in base, with Vaccaro at nickelback and Bush at strong safety in nickel defense. So we’re set at safety, right?
As far as depth is concerned, the only safety on the Saints roster not named Byrd, Vaccaro or Bush is Marcus Ball. No disrespect to the CFL, but this is a guy who will likely be no more than a backup for Vaccaro/Bush at strong safety. That’s a total of four guys manning a position set which requires three of them on the field often.
Naturally, the Saints will be looking to the draft to bolster the depth of the position. Expect the pick to select a safety for the Saints to be a low-round one too, as the starter roles are pencilled in already. Here are a few guys who I’d like to see don the fleur-de-lis in a month’s time in order of preference.
4.) Alden Darby (Arizona St.) – 5-foot-11, 192 lb. 7th round prospect
Versatility is something Rob Ryan craves from his safeties, and Darby is the kind of guy who gives him that – he’s played snaps at every position in the secondary. He’s a leader of the ASU defense and has a positive locker room character. He’s not particularly good in man coverage though, and his small size isn’t ideal to play safety. Add to that his relatively slow speed, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him go undrafted. If he doesn’t get drafted, expect him to be one of the UDFAs the Saints pick up post-draft – they’ve been keeping an eye on him.