Saints saw their secondary as a strength even before Marshon Lattimore returned to practice

METAIRIE, La. (AP) — Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore broke toward the line of scrimmage and launched himself upward to get his hands on Spencer Rattler's pass as receiver Bub Means was starting to bring in a leaping catch.

As the rookie receiver and four-time Pro Bowl defender descended, Lattimore ripped the ball away for an interception, setting off a brief celebration among defensive players along the sideline during Wednesday's minicamp practice.

Lattimore says he's out to remind the rest of the NFL that he's still the “No. 1” cornerback in the league — a promising development for a Saints secondary that managed to fare well without him during the last seven games of 2023.

“Our pass defense, I thought, was one of the better things that we did” last season, said Saints coach Dennis Allen, who played safety for Texas A&M and served as the secondary coach for the Saints' 2009 championship team.

The Saints ranked 10th against the pass in 2023, allowing 207.3 yards passing per game.

Cornerback Paulson Adebo, a 2021 third-round draft choice, and veteran safety Tyrann Mathieu each had four interceptions to tie for the team lead.

Both are back, along with versatile defensive back Alontae Taylor, who was a 2022 second-round draft choice, and veteran safety Johnathan Abram, who thrived while playing alongside Mathieu late last season.

The Saints further bolstered their backfield by taking former Alabama standout Kool-Aid McKinstry in the second round of the NFL draft.

With Lattimore back, Saints defensive coordinator Joe Woods said that he now has four cornerbacks who are good enough to start in the NFL, reminding him of when he coached Denzel Ward, Martin Emerson Jr., Greg Newsome II and Greedy Williams in Cleveland several years ago.

“When you have four guys you feel like can go out and start for you, and when you can go create matchups from the corner position, that’s when you feel confident you can do some things,” Woods said. "I just feel good about the group. I feel like they’re talented and will be able to go out and match up against a lot of teams.”

For now, the Saints want Taylor to play nickel back, even though he sometimes struggled at that spot last season. Having come into the NFL as a cornerback who mostly covered wideouts, Taylor did not initially adjust well to defending the more diverse routes slot receivers can run in the middle of the field.

Now, however, Taylor “understands it better,” Woods said. "He’s definitely further along.”

More uncertainty this offseason has swirled around Lattimore, who was a first-round draft choice and AP Defensive Rookie of the Year back in 2017, but has struggled to stay healthy recently. Lattimore has played in 17 games and has just two interceptions during the past two seasons combined.

The Ohio native also chose to train on his own in recent weeks rather than participate in voluntary offseason practices in New Orleans.

While Allen has acknowledged trade speculation involving New Orleans' highest-paid defender, he described it as coming from “outside” the Saints organization.

And when Lattimore showed up for mandatory minicamp this week, he said he would not begrudge the Saints if they did entertain trade offers.

“I ain’t got no problem with it. It’s all business,” Lattimore said. “I’m not thinking about whether I’m going to get traded or nothing like that. I don’t really care, to be honest.

“I’ve been hurt for two years, so I understand that people probably don’t think I’m the same type of player,” Lattimore added. “All I’ve got to do is prove to people that I am. So, that really falls on me.”

Mathieu predicted that if Lattimore is “able to stay healthy and keep himself in that competitive mindset, he’s going to be everything he’s always been for us.”

Woods said he sensed that “the last two years were tough” on Lattimore because of “some freakish injuries” to his ribs, kidney and ankle.

“People may have forgotten about him a little bit in terms of the status he’s had in this league,” Woods said. “So, I feel like he may have a little chip on his shoulder.”