The New Orleans Saints continued to improve their secondary on Friday with the addition of cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste in the second round with the No. 58 overall pick. In fact, the two-year overhaul of the defensive backfield has been nothing short of miraculous, with likely more improvement to come.
In 2012, the Saints defense got abused pretty badly. It gave up 4,681 yards through the air and ranked 31st in the NFL. Then the franchise decided to turn things on its ear.
First came a scheme change.
New Orleans transitioned from a 4-3 to a 3-4 and welcomed new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. General manager Mickey Loomis, at that point, started revamping the guys in the back of the defense who most affected the opposition’s passing game.
In February of 2013 the Saints signed safety Rafael Bush, an exclusive-rights free agent. Then cornerback Keenan Lewis was signed in March via free agency.
Bush, who was a special teams ace with the Atlanta Falcons prior to landing in New Orleans, increased his snap count by approximately four times (from 123 in 2012 to 599 in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), and actually started seven games at free safety.
Lewis finished the 2013 season as the sixth-ranked cover corner, according to Pro Football Focus. After the 2012 season he was ranked 58th.
Bush and Lewis were huge additions to this Saints secondary. But they weren’t the only finds.
Kenny Vaccaro was the Saints’ first-round pick (15th overall) in 2013. He started 14 games until a broken ankle ended his season. Prior to that injury, he was an enforcer-type tackling machine in the box.
What were the fruits of this bounty of defensive backs?
The Saints moved from the 31st-ranked pass defense to the second-ranked and only gave up 3,105 yards through the air. The improvement had a lot to do with the yin-yang combination of a vastly improved pass rush with three new members of the secondary who shined instead of simmered.
Back in March of this year, the Saints went out and grabbed safety Jairus Byrd in free agency. At $54 million with a little over $26 million guaranteed, New Orleans might have overpaid a bit, but no one can argue with Byrd’s skills.
Byrd was a top-10 cover safety in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus, who only gave up 11 receptions in 359 snaps he was in coverage for the Buffalo Bills. His presence in 2014 will greatly improve an already nasty pass defense in New Orleans.
Champ Bailey was signed in April via free agency to both help at the cornerback position and possibly help groom a 2014 draftee. Bailey is a 12-time Pro-Bowler and seven-time All-Pro who will turn 36 prior to the season. But he can offer so much to a young and developing secondary.
Jean-Baptiste will be the draftee who benefits from working under Bailey and Lewis.
At 6’3” and 218 pounds, Jean-Baptiste looks every bit like what the new defensive back of the future should look like. He’s tall, physical and can make a play at most passes thrown his way.
He had 21 pass breakups over his last two seasons at Nebraska (nine in 2012 and 12 in 2013) and picked off six during that time span. Mike Mayock of NFL Network raved about Jean-Baptiste after the Saints picked him.
At 6-foot-4 and 218 pounds, he is today's NFL corner. He's a lot like Richard Sherman in that he's a converted wide receiver, but he has the size of Brandon Browner. I think (New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator) Rob Ryan is going to turn him into a future All-Pro.
If Jean-Baptiste is a future All-Pro, and Bailey and Byrd have already been bestowed with that honor, this union has the makings of an incredible defensive backfield. Take into account that Vaccaro and Lewis have the ability to join this All-Pro club, and Loomis should be given a truckload of money just for his work in rehabbing the Saints secondary.
With the selection of Jean-Baptiste, the Saints can stop working on their secondary and start enjoying the fact that all that skill and upside back there could help propel this Saints team on a journey to the Super Bowl in 2014.
Unless otherwise noted all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.
Knox Bardeen is the NFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report and the author of “100 Things Falcons Fans Should Know & Do Before they Die.” Be sure to follow Knox on Twitter.