How do you replace the player who led your team in defensive snaps a year ago? We’re about to find out, as the New Orleans Saints are now entrusted with that task as two-time Super Bowl champion Malcolm Jenkins has announced his retirement. This is happening in the same off-season that New Orleans will also have to replace their second leading defensive snap-getter in Marcus Williams.
That puts the Saints in a precarious position in terms of security, although the newly signed Marcus Maye should fill the Williams role well. (It’s worth noting that he might miss some time to start the season after a 2021 DUI arrest.) But replacing Jenkins, one of the NFL’s ironmen and highly respected team leader, is going to be an uphill task. Here are five ways the Saints can try to make up for the loss.
Sign Free Agent Security Tyrann Mathieu
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
If you want to take the box safety position that Jenkins played so well and so effectively while also bringing in another veteran leader, Tyrann Mathieu is the most immediate replacement. Mathieu and the Saints were linked early in the free-choice period with reports noting that there was “mutual interest.” If that’s still the case, there’s a clearly defined role available in Mathieu’s hometown that should be a huge selling point.
Mathieu is reliable in the penalty area and in the lock, both as a running defender and in cover. He can also fall back and play split-zone cover along with Maye. He gives the team the versatility they will lose without Jenkins and experienced leadership in an otherwise young high school. Mathieu would also have the same kind of community impact as Jenkins. As a native of New Orleans, he has already worked very closely in the area.
Re-sign PJ Williams
Joe Nicholson-US TODAY Sports
There have been some reports that Mathieu may not be looking to sign with a team soon† If that’s the case and the Saints don’t want to wait for him, they can pursue an internal option in PJ Williams. Williams has revived his career both in terms of safety and the lock. In 2021, he took over 200 shots of the slot, while also backing up Marcus Williams’ free safety. The challenge here would be that PJ Williams has not made more than about 60 snaps in the box in any given season. So that would be a new role for him if the Saints want Marcus Maye to play free safety, even though Maye spent more time on strong safety in Robert Saleh’s Jets defense last year.
However, Williams’ extensive experience in the slot, along with his knowledge of Dennis Allen’s defense and ability to communicate within the scheme, carry a lot of value. He’s used to the players around him and they know them, except Maye. If the focus of offseason continuity remains, it will open the door for Williams’ return and the opportunity to play a significant role.
Move CJ Gardner-Johnson out of the trench
Jim Brown-US TODAY Sports
Another potential replacement for Jenkins could already be on the roster. Safety CJ Gardner-Johnson has been great at the slot. While it would be a hard pill to lose him there, there are other options, such as Bradley Roby extending his deal with the Saints. Moving Gardner-Johnson into the security role would shift his responsibilities a bit, but he could still be active as a run defender and a quick pass rusher, two of his best playing fields.
He would be tasked with covering tighter ends than slot receivers, allowing him to rely more on his physical nature than he can with more shifter wideouts like Chris Godwin and Robby Anderson in the division. This would also be the most cost-effective approach in the short term, but would affect Gardner-Johnson’s contract value if he’s in talks about renewal. Probably a negotiation well worth the reward. The big question will be whether Dennis Allen and the Saints value Gardner-Johnson’s role in the slot too much to disturb.
Watch the NFL Draft Class of 2022
Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports
The Saints have landed each of their last few starters in this role in the NFL Draft. Kenny Vaccaro (before he was moved), Vonn Bell and Malcolm Jenkins were all drafted safeties who immediately took meaningful shots in similar roles. New Orleans could go this route again in the 2022 draft. While it’s hard to justify setting up box-safes in the first round these days, there are excellent options for day two.
However, there is so much debate about the safety of Notre Dame, Kyle Hamilton, thanks to his 40-meter sprint times, that an ideal scenario could be that he falls within the reach of the Saints. That’s still unlikely, of course, thanks to the kind of security he is, and how many NFL teams will wisely rely on tape over the Olympics of underwear. Instead, names like Penn State’s Jaquan Briskers, Georgia’s Lewis Cine, Michigan’s Daxton Hill and Baylor Jalen Pitre should all be seen as a potential second-day roster that could affect position.
Start Daniel Sorensen
Kirby Lee-US TODAY Sports
This would be a bit of a worst case scenario where no other options work. Sorensen has not proven himself to be a reliable asset in coverage in the latter part of his career and has also struggled as a tackler, missing 25% of his tackles in 2021 according to Pro-Football-Reference.
Sorensen appears to have been signed as a more immediate special teams/depth replacement for Jeff Heath, who the Saints have yet to re-sign. Changing that outlook would be a huge turnaround, especially given the internal options and capabilities that are also on the roster. To get around those and choose to start Sorensen would be a bit of a surprise.