Training Camp 2008: Break Down of the Saints Cornerbacks

Craft makes a play

2007 Summary:

Cornerback last year was the most visible position on the Saints defense, in a negative way. After Fred Thomas was burned late in the 2006 season, Jason David came in as the presumptive savoir and the Saints drafted two CBs. One of which, Usama Young, secured a roster on the team. David did indeed start across from Mike McKenzie, but was burned for several highlight reel touchdowns. Young rotated in with Jason Craft and Fred Thomas as the nickel or dime defensive back, but none of the three were spectacular.

2008 Offseason:

During the initial free agency period, the Saints signed two free agents at the cornerback position, neither of which were high-profile signings. Randal Gay was a four year player, but rarely a starter for the New England Patriots. Aaron Glenn is surely on his last legs and is not a savoir at the cornerback position, but has been a great player in the past and has a lot of experience to impart to the Saints younger defensive backs. In the draft, the Saints picked up Tracy Porter in the second round. Fred Thomas was released from the team and is not going to be with the Saints in 2008. Around the time of OTAs, the Saints picked up a couple of other players to compete in training camp as well.

Player summary:

CBs on roster as of today (in the order listed on the Saints website when sorting by position):

Mike McKenzie (34)
Tracy Porter (22)
Jason Craft (21)
Aaron Glenn (31)
Randall Gay (20)
Greg Fassitt (32)
Usama Young (28)
Anwar Phillips (36)
Jason David (42)
Jerametrius Butler (45)

Mike McKenzie:

Jersey Number: 34
School: Memphis
Year: Junior
Drafted: 3rd Round 1999 (Packers)
Experience: 10 years
Height: 6-0
Weight: 194
40-Time: 4.58 (Combine)

There is nothing more you can say about McKenzie except he has been the number one starting CB for the Saints for more than a few years. The prior Saints staff traded for McKenzie in 04’ and it’s been a praised move ever since. McKenzie, however, injured his right knee in week 15 against the Eagles in 07’. He had knee surgery soon after and has been in intense rehab trying to prepare for 08’.

According to McKenzie, he is on schedule to report to training camp at full speed. If so, that is a very fast recovery. Usually a player is not back to the practice field for upwards of 9 or 10 months and really ready to play for at least year. It will be almost exactly 7 months from the injury if he is on the field and playing full speed when training camp starts. It really comes down to how McKenzie has recovered on whether he starts or is on the IR/PUP lists come the beginning of the season.

How that goes will make a large impact on several other players on the team. Certainly the players who would want to fill his starting LCB spot while he is still recovering will be impacted. Also players that would not have been given a chance to play at all will be impacted, because the nickel CB will probably be the LCB.

Look for whether MM is on the practice field with “the 1’s” (starting players), or if he is riding a bike or missing completely from the field. That will tell you what the lay of the land is.

Tracy Porter:
Jersey Number: 22
School: Indiana
Year: Senior
Drafted: 2nd round 2008 (Saints)
Experience: Rookie
Height: 5-11
Weight: 186
40-Time: 4.37 (Combine)

With 24 INTs in his college career and 6 in his final year, Porter was a leader on the Indiana football team. He was a stand out cornerback and considered to be one of the better man-to-man cover corners coming out of the draft. He’s a bit undersized for the “ideal” cornerback, but not for the standard NFL starting cornerback. He has played well in OTAs, but has already shown his inexperience by being beaten by the veteran receivers he has faced.

Cornerback is one of the harder positions to transition from college to the NFL. So don’t expect the world from Porter just yet. Although it has happened before, so it’s not beyond all possibility. Being drafted as a high second round pick means he is probably considered, at this point, to be a future starter for the Saints at CB.

Porter did some kick returning in college and will probably spend some time returning kickoffs in TC. The Saints have suffered quite a bit from average to poor kickoff returns since Michael “Beerman” Lewis departed after 2006.

Word around town is that Porter is rising fast on the Saints depth chart after an impressive performance in shorts and shells at the OTAs. Even if Porter doesn’t make the starting line up, which would be surprising; expect Porter to make the team as a developmental backup, kick returner and maybe a nickel/dime package defensive back.

Jason Craft:

Jersey Number: 21
School: Colorado State
Year: Senior
Drafted: 5th round 1999 (Jaguars)
Experience: 10 years
Height: 5-10
Weight: 187
40-Time: 4.52 (Combine)

Jason Craft has been on the Saints roster since 2004. Craft has been a decent cornerback in that time, but is not the answer long term. Craft started the last four games to the end of 2007 after Mike McKenzie went down, but will have to fight off David, Young, Gay and probably even Porter to keep that position even if MM doesn’t make it back to 100% in time for the first game. He can certainly hold the position down, but is not expected to start unless there is both a surprise performance by Craft and a surprising under-performance by others.

Craft has 36 interceptions in 10 years, giving him an average of 3.6 INTs a year. Last year was his best year ever in total tackles as a Saint (56) and just four behind his career high of 60 in 2001 with the Jaguars. If Craft doesn’t start at the beginning of the year, he may end up competing with Aaron Glenn for the roll of veteran backup. Glenn has been a utility defensive back, playing free safety solidly when called upon.

Aaron Glenn:
Jersey Number: 31
School: Texas A&M
Year: Senior
Drafted: 1st Round 1994 (NY Jets)
Experience: 15 years
Height: 5-9
Weight: 183
40-Time: 4.57 (Combine)

Aaron Glenn was released by the Cowboys late in the last round of cuts in 2007. He was picked up quickly by the Jaguars, but wasn’t activated as a player right away. Glenn started four games for the Jags when Rashean Mathis (CB) and Brian Williams (FS) were injured, playing admirably. Glenn made his lone interception while playing the free safety position in place of Williams in game 8 against the Bucs.

Glenn will probably not figure into the starting competition for cornerback, but his versatility as a backup CB or FS, makes him an interesting player for roster spot competition. That versatility and veteran experience could put any cornerback (or free safety) that lands near the bottom of the depth charts in jeopardy of a job. Sean Payton likes versatile backups, especially ones that have a lot of experience to impart to younger players. Expect Glenn to make the team if he can show he still has some gas in the tank and can stay healthy.

Randall Gay:
Jersey Number: 20
School: LSU
Year: Senior
Drafted: UDFA 2004 (Patriots)
Experience: 5 years
Height: 5-11
Weight: 190
40-Time: 4.38 (Combine)

Randall Gay has been with the New England Patriots for the last four years. He started 9 games in his rookie year and had a decent showing. Unfortunately he hurt his ankle, forcing him to miss 3 months in 2005 and his hamstring in the third game of the 2006 season, putting him out for the rest of the year. In 2007 Gay played injury free, mostly as the nickel cornerback, but getting three starts. He was able to grab 3 interceptions and had 7 pass deflections, even with the limited playing time.

Gay was picked up by the Saints in free agency, probably as an insurance policy, but also with the upside that he could end up starting. If Mike McKenzie does not make it back to the starting line up by game 1, expect Gay to make a serious challenge for a starting cornerback position. If MM does make it back, Jason David and Usama Young will probably have a battle on their hands from Gay. He has been fighting for a starting spot ever since the 2005 and 2006 injury riddled seasons. Gay is back home in Louisiana and wants to prove that he belongs in the starting line up.

Gay is fast and has been coached by one of best defensive teams in the NFL. He has had a lot of experience in both man to man and zone coverage, with decent success, despite being down the depth chart. Expect Gay to make the team even if he doesn’t start. He has excelled as a nickel back and the NFL today has the nickel back on the field upwards of 60% of the time.

Greg Fassitt:
Jersey Number: 32
School: Grambling State
Year: Senior
Drafted: UDFA 2007 (Bears)
Experience: 1 year
Height: 5-11
Weight: 186
40-Time: 4.39 (Combine)

Greg Fassitt was picked up by the Chicago Bears as an UDFA and was put in their practice squad, never being activated through the 2007 season. So Fassitt is a bit of a mystery. He showed some speed at the combine and topped it at Grambling’s Pro Day with a 4.36.

Unless otherwise proven, Fassitt appears to be a camp body. Expect Fassitt to be near the bottom of the depth chart or even the practice squad at best. Maybe he will be a diamond in the rough though, it wouldn’t be the first time that the Saints have found one.

Usama Young:
Jersey Number: 28 (formerly 38)
School: Kent State
Year: Senior
Drafted: 3rd Round 2007 (Saints)
Experience: 1 year
Height: 6-0
Weight: 200
40-Time: 4.4 (Combine)

Usama Young was an unexpected selection by the Saints in the early third round of the 2007 draft. In camp last year Young showed a lot of athleticism, but also proved that he was a long term project. Young did not start in 2007, but played in all but two games (hamstring) for the Saints. As the season wound down, Young saw more and more playing time and seemed to be improving week to week. He did not have any INTs, and only had two passes defended, unfortunately, for a Saints defensive backfield that sorely needs a game breaker.

Young may be the future of the CB position for the Saints, but that has yet to be proven. After Mike McKenzie went down in the Eagles game, Young was not put in the starting role, even though the playoffs were merely a statistical possibility. One would think that if the Saints had big plans for Young, they would have played him more to give him more game experience. In addition, would they have gotten so many new CBs to compete if Young was the answer? They didn’t just draft Tracy Porter in the second round, they brought in Randall Gay, Aaron Glenn Jerametrius Butler and Fassitt in free agency. That has to make one think.

With that said, Young may still be in the hunt for the starting job at CB if Mike McKenzie is unable to make a full recovery from his knee injury. If MM does make it back, it will be a lot harder for Young to break into the starting role.

Anwar Phillips:
Jersey Number: 36
School: Penn State
Year: Senior
Drafted: UDFA 2006 (Saints)
Experience: 2 years
Height: 6-0
Weight: 187
40-Time: 4.46 (Combine)

Anwar Phillips started out as a wide receiver for the Nittany Lions, but moved to defensive back midway through his college career. Phillips went undrafted in 2006, but has been in the Saints training camp and practice squad for two years now. No doubt the converted receiver was looked at as a long term project by the coaching staff, but after two years, the team probably expects some fruit for their investments soon.

Phillips has never played an NFL regular season down, so there is not much to know about. If Anwar doesn’t make the team this year, he is likely to be looking for a new team to play with in the future.

Expect Phillips to be fighting for a final roster spot, if he makes it that far.

Jason David:

Jersey Number: 42
School: Washington State
Year: Senior
Drafted: 4th Round 2004 (Colts)
Experience: 5 years
Height: 5-8
Weight: 180
40-Time: 4.47 (Combine)

Jason David was brought in from the Super Bowl Champion Indianapolis Colts and was expected to save the day. Unfortunately, he had a hard time transitioning back to a mostly man to man scheme from the Colts mostly Cover-2 zone scheme. David has great instincts and deceptive speed, often showing his skills in one on one drills. He played most of his college years as a man to man specialist at cornerback. His reactions were off, though, after being forced to change his instincts for four years in Indianapolis.

David was severely burned on some high profile plays early in the season. Then he broke his forearm against Tenn in the third game. David returned a month later and did start to show improvement as the season wore on. It wasn’t enough to satisfy the Saints though, as they brought in a host of competition to keep David honest.

David comes in as the returning starter, but with Gay, Glenn, Porter and Young all in camp, David will have to really shine to keep that job in 2008. It would be surprising to see David not make the team as a backup or nickel back if he does loose his job, so expect David to be on the final roster come September.

Jerametrius Butler:

Jersey Number: 45
School: Kent State
Year: Senior
Drafted: 5th Round 2001 (Rams)
Experience: 8 years
Height: 5-10
Weight: 181
40-Time: 4.57 (Combine)

Butler is an interesting pickup for the Saints. After being a developmental project early in his career, he had a breakout year in 2003, starting all but one game, grabbing 4 INTs and getting 71 tackles. Then in 2004, he topped it with 5 INTs, an impressive 14 passes broken up and 79 tackles. Butler appeared to be on the way to a productive career. Then in 2005, Butler had a major injury to his right knee that eventually resulted in him being cut from the Rams after 2006. In 2007, Butler started one game for the Buffalo Bills, but was cut at the end of the year.

Butler appears to be one of those low risk gambles, sort of like David Patten was in 2007. If he is finally fully healed from his knee injury, he may be a starter quality player for the Saints. If he is not, then the Saints don’t have a lot invested in him and can cut him. If Butler performs well and makes it to the later rounds of cuts, he may end up being a nice pick up.

Competition Summary:

There are 10 players listed at CB going into camp, for either 5 or 6 positions. If the coaching staff feels very good about the first 5, there may not be a 6th position. That leaves 4 or possibly 5 players out. If McKenzie ends up on the PUP/IR list, it will give a temporary reprieve for one player. It is unlikely though, if McKenzie is rehabbing as fast as he says, that he will not be on the active roster, even if he is not ready to start. The NFL restricts a player from returning for several weeks if he is on the injured lists. The Saints will probably want him to be able to play as soon as he is ready. If he does end up on the IR/PUP list, he is probably out about half of the season.

If Mike McKenzie is healthy, look for Jason David, Randall Gay and Usama Young to compete for the starting role opposite him. That would leave a large contingent vying for the final roster spots. The nickel corner position gets a lot more playing time that most think, so it will be a coveted position and most likely go to the runner up for RCB.

If Mike McKenzie is out and not on the active roster, then expect to see a wide open competition for both LCB and RCB. It’s going to get very interesting with wild card players like Butler that have been brought in.

The most likely locks for the roster include Mike McKenzie, Tracy Porter, Randall Gay and possibly Usama Young. One could make an argument for Jason David as well, but there are no guarantees. David should be competing for a starting role, but if he is completely outperformed by some of the new arrivals, he could be odd man out.

So, most likely, that leaves only one or two roster positions open. Jason Craft has tenure, but Aaron Glenn has more success filling in for both CB and FS. That makes him versatile and possibly able to fill two roles, freeing up a roster spot, which Head Coach Sean Payton likes. Then there are the unknowns with Greg Fassitt and Jerametrius Butler. Even Anwar Phillips could suddenly have the lights turn on in his third year.

Strap on your seatbelts Saints fans, it’s going to be a fun ride!

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2 Responses to “Training Camp 2008: Break Down of the Saints Cornerbacks”

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