Old pals come full circle to fix secondary
Roman Harper always knew Dennis Allen would become a coordinator. Back in 2008, when Harper was a third-year safety for the Saints, he could tell his first-year secondary coach was destined for more. "All we did was joke on him, like, DA, so you are leaving us, right?" Harper says. "He's so detail-oriented. He tells you at all three levels what's going on. When a coach understands it that thoroughly, it's like, O.K., he's going to be a coordinator."
One season after they won a Super Bowl together, Harper's prophecy came true when the Broncos tabbed Allen to lead their defense in 2011. Harper left for Carolina in '14. Now both are back, hoping to return the Saints' D to how they left it, because coach Sean Payton has struggled to replace them. Ravaged by Bountygate in '12, the unit finished last in yards allowed. It bounced back after Rob Ryan took over for Steve Spagnuolo as coordinator heading into '13, but finished 31st in '14 and '15.
This off-season Harper re-signed with New Orleans, eager to reunite with Allen. "When you've got a coach [as smart as he is], you gotta love him and you love playing for him," Harper says.
They can now reminisce about those early days. They also talk about fatherhood, now that Allen's oldest son is rocking a tattoo sleeve on the sideline and Harper has three children of his own. But on the field they are focused on revitalizing the defense, where Harper faces tough competition. He came to New Orleans knowing there would be no guaranteed playing time, not with the Saints' other options at safety, starting with one who was just beginning his NFL career when Harper last wore gold-and-black.
Kenny Vaccaro made the all-rookie team in 2013 and could be up for more honors if Allen uses him right. "I love the way Kenny plays," Harper says. "You try not to put shackles on guys like that, who can read and diagnose and fly around and hit guys at full speed. DA is doing a better job of allowing Kenny to be himself."
Then there's the Pro Bowler who was brought in to replace Harper. After leading the league in interceptions as a Bill, Jairus Byrd has not lived up to the six-year, $56 million contract the Saints gave him, though Allen does not fault him for that. "Let's give this guy an opportunity as a healthy, 100% Jairus Byrd," says the coordinator. "That's what I'm anxious to see."
An unleashed Vaccaro, a healthy Byrd (torn meniscus), a savvy Harper, plus second-round pick Vonn Bell (Ohio State) and CFL standout Erik Harris? That's quite a rotation. Allen has experimented with three-safety sets during camp, allowing Vaccaro to blow up run plays, Harper to blitz off the edge and Byrd to roam the back half and add to his pick tally. "It just lets us utilize our strengths and confuse the offense because you have a different body type doing something else," Byrd says.
That versatility has proved useful against the Saints' multifaceted offense in practice and could be pivotal as New Orleans tries to reclaim the division crown. "In our league today, rather than beat our head against the wall saying this linebacker has to cover this tight end, we've got guys standing over here on the sidelines that can go out there and cover these guys," Allen says. "Let's have a package where we can play with those guys."
Of course Allen understands this team doesn't have much time to tinker. Drew Brees is 37. The rumblings around the potential departure of Payton—now tied with Mike McCarthy as the league's third-longest-tenured coach—seem to grow louder each year. But you don't have to remind Allen how quickly time passes. He just needs to take one look at Harper, covered in gray hair, laughing about the old days.
TAKE THIS GUY AWAY AND THE OFFENSE CRUMBLES
It's possible that Michael Thomas, the second-round pick out of Ohio State, will be a bust. But the role he'll play in New Orleans gives him every chance to succeed. In the aggressive downfield designs that define coach Sean Payton's system, Thomas will be the slot receiver. Most offenses these days use shifty, horizontal slot weapons—your Julian Edelmans, your Doug Baldwins. The Saints are different. They attack vertically and in the middle of the field, so they need a big-bodied wideout who can high-point the ball while running down the seam. Marques Colston, a seventh-round pick, became a perennial 1,000-yard receiver doing this. Thomas gets the first crack at being the new Colston. It can be an easy way to get rich because so few corners play inside, and even fewer have the size to match the 6'3", 212-pound Thomas. The seam-route runner in New Orleans has a lot of advantages.
SI's 2016 Prediction: 6--10
2015 Record: 7--9
SEPT. 11 vs.OAK [PREDICTED WINNER]
SEPT. 18 atNYG
SEPT. 26 vs.ATL
OCT. 2 atSD
OCT. 16 vs.CAR [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 23 atKC
OCT. 30 vs.SEA [PREDICTED WINNER]
NOV. 6 atSF
NOV. 13 vs.DEN [PREDICTED WINNER]
NOV. 17 atCAR
NOV. 27 vs.LA
DEC. 4 vs.DET [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 11 atTB
DEC. 18 atARI
DEC. 24 vs.TB [PREDICTED WINNER]
JAN. 1 atATL
= PREDICTED WINNER