Their flirtation with the New England Patriots’ Malcolm Butler was well publicized, but a deal never materialized. ESPN’s Adam Schefter also reported last year that a trade for the Los Angeles Rams’ Trumaine Johnson fell through because Johnson didn’t want to sign a long-term deal with New Orleans.
Well, one year later, both Butler and Johnson are unrestricted free agents who appear destined for new addresses.
Butler’s mysterious Super Bowl benching still has not been fully explained, but it seems inevitable that Butler and the Patriots will go their own ways. And the Rams almost certainly will let Johnson go after agreeing to a trade for Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters.
The bigger question is whether the Saints still are interested in either Butler or Johnson now that Lattimore has emerged as one of the NFL’s top cornerbacks and Ken Crawley has emerged as a solid No. 2 corner.
Butler and Johnson both should command more than $10 million per year, which would make either one the most expensive free agent newcomer in Saints history.
We know the Saints aren’t afraid of spending that kind of money at cornerback -- they tried to lure free agent Josh Norman at around $15 million per year in 2016. But are they willing to spend that much now that they don’t need a “No. 1” cornerback as badly as they did before Lattimore arrived?
Either way, depth at the position should be a priority, especially if the Saints decide not to bring back free agent safety Kenny Vaccaro or restricted free agent cornerback Delvin Breaux. That’s why I have cornerback ranked No. 4 in my position-by-position breakdown of New Orleans’ offseason needs:
Current depth chart
Marshon Lattimore. Age 21, signed through 2020 (Saints can exercise fifth-year tender on him through 2021). 2018 salary and bonuses: $1.163 million. 2018 salary-cap number: $3.49 million.
Ken Crawley. Age 25, scheduled to be restricted free agent in 2019. 2018 salary and bonuses: $630,000. 2018 salary-cap number: $631,668.
P.J. Williams. Age 24, signed through 2018. 2018 salary and bonuses: $730,000. 2018 salary-cap number: $906,478.
Delvin Breaux. Age 28, restricted free agent.
Sterling Moore. Age 28, unrestricted free agent.
Justin Hardee. Age 24, scheduled to be exclusive rights free agent in 2019. 2018 salary and bonuses: $555,000. 2018 salary-cap number: $555,000.
Arthur Maulet. Age 24, scheduled to be exclusive rights free agent in 2019. 2018 salary and bonuses: $555,000. 2018 salary-cap number: $555,000.
De’Vante Harris. Age 24, signed through 2019. 2018 salary and bonuses: $630,000. 2018 salary-cap number: 650,000.
Mykkele Thompson. Age 24, scheduled to be exclusive rights free agent in 2020. 2018 salary and bonuses: $480,000. 2018 salary-cap number: $480,000.
Bradley Sylve. Age 25, scheduled to be exclusive rights free agent in 2020. 2018 salary and bonuses: $480,000. 2018 salary-cap number: $480,000.
Breaux is the biggest mystery in this group. Three years ago, the physical 6-foot-1, 210-pounder established himself as a No. 1 cornerback himself, playing at nearly a Pro Bowl level while routinely matching up against top receivers. But his last two seasons were plagued by broken fibulas, and he didn’t play a snap last year.
The Saints need to offer Breaux a one-year contract worth nearly $2 million to maintain the right to match any other offer he might sign with another team. If they want to guarantee that Breaux doesn’t go elsewhere, they would have to make that offer closer to $3 million, which would force another team to pay a second-round pick to pry Breaux away.
That $3 million price tag would be a no-brainer if the Saints feel Breaux can stay healthy and return anywhere near the form that he displayed in 2015. But that’s a big “if” now that the New Orleans native and former Canadian Football League standout has missed so much time. And it’s unclear how much faith the Saints still have in Breaux. They came close to trading him last summer when they had grown weary of his injury history, but that was before they realized his broken fibula was more severe than originally diagnosed.
The Saints obviously should feel good about their top two cornerbacks. Lattimore, who was the 11th pick in the draft out of Ohio State, was a Pro Bowler and a nearly unanimous choice for Defensive Rookie of the Year. He finished with five interceptions and 18 pass defenses in 13 regular-season starts while often shadowing the opponent’s top receiver.
Crawley was a bit of a revelation himself in his second NFL season. Undrafted out of Colorado in 2016, Crawley was a healthy inactive for the first two weeks. But he wound up starting 13 games with one interception and 17 pass defenses in the regular season.
After that, the Saints’ depth is a bit of a question mark, especially if they decide to use three cornerbacks more in their nickel packages this year after relying so heavily on three-safety packages in recent years.
Williams has flashed the ability to be a starter or nickel corner after his first two seasons were plagued by injuries. But he also has battled some inconsistency.
Moore has been a solid fill-in when needed, but the Saints barely used him last year. Maulet showed intriguing potential as an undrafted rookie last year. Hardee was outstanding on special teams, though he didn’t enter the picture much on defense. Harris has played both special teams and defense, though he finished last season on the practice squad.