Through the season’s first two games, the Saints defense has been the driving force behind their 2-0 start. Specifically, the secondary has been absolutely dominant. The group has just suffocated opposing pass games so far, largely due to veteran performance. As a whole, the defense looks like a unit building on the continuity it began to form last season.
Unfortunately, some of that continuity is about to take a serious hit. With Marcus Maye’s suspension, the secondary will be without one of its key veterans for the next three games. Playing in year two alongside fellow 2022 free agent signing Tyrann Mathieu, Maye has been rock solid thus far. After somewhat of a slow start for the pair last season, they seemed to mesh well in camp and appeared to be forming one of the league’s premier duos at safety.
Maye had a key interception in the opener and has generally been a plus in both coverage and run support.
While losing Maye is a tough blow, the Saints believe they have a more than capable option waiting in the wings. Rookie Jordan Howden will be counted on to fill Maye’s shoes and keep this defense rolling. How can Howden step into this role, and what makes the Saints so confident in his ability to do so?
Saints Rookie Jordan Howden Looking to Step Up and Keep Secondary Rolling
As just a fifth-round pick, Howden was a relatively unheralded name among the Saints draft class. He isn’t particularly big, at just six feet and barely clearing 200 pounds. Neither is he a dynamic, quick-twitch athlete who could excel in a single-high isolated safety spot. He wasn’t going to enter 2023 as a projected starter and didn’t come with a particularly exciting pre-draft pedigree. Some even considered the selection a surprise, given the perceived depth the Saints had in their secondary at the time
What wasn’t a surprise though, was why exactly the Saints were so enamored with him. He was a five-year starter, team captain, and posted an above-average 8.88 RAS score. He also spent time in multiple defensive back positions during his time in Minnesota. Having played snaps at free safety, nickel, and up in the box, his array of experience is reminiscent of how the Saints used C.J. Gardner-Johnson during his stint. In short, Jordan Howden checked all the boxes the Saints wanted in their safeties.
As mentioned, Howden’s versatility is likely what got him the most attention from the Saints. He was put to the test early in camp, thrown right in the fire at multiple positions. While receiving the majority of snaps early in camp rotating at safety, he was also tasked with quickly adjusting to other secondary roles. Defensive Coordinator Joe Woods immediately pointed to this versatility when asked what stood out about Howden’s game. Woods added how the Saints “put [Howden] out there at nickel with no work”, and impressed in the process.
Howden has already seen game action this season, which should help his acclimation process as his snap count ramps up. His playing time has primarily been on special teams, and has already made a splash play at gunner. More importantly, though, he’s been working when the Saints have played in their dime packages. Howden’s coverage skills are going to be tested early and he’s going to have to prove he can hold up. Tyrann Mathieu specifically mentioned Howden not “[panicking] when the ball is in the air”. The Saints view Howden as a versatile chess piece they can move throughout the secondary, and it’s time for him to step up and prove them right.
Jeff Nowak on X: “Didn’t realize til just now that Jordan Howden came from the gunner spot on the opposite side of the field to make this special teams tackle. Not sure if it’s ideal in terms of backside containment, but you can see the ability, regardless. #Saints https://t.co/fonEp8DWG1” / X (twitter.com)
Howden’s Time to Shine
The Saints haven’t needed much this season from their rookie class. Bryan Bresee has been the only significant contributor, and even he has worked in a rotation. Perhaps sooner than anyone had anticipated, it will be the team’s third selected defensive rookie who will be the first to receive a primary starting role.
Despite Maye’s upcoming absence and the release of Bradley Roby, the Saints have done a good job stockpiling secondary depth. Among others, Lonnie Johnson and Ugo Amadi are two other defensive backs capable of filling multiple roles. And of course, having a cornerback playing as well as Marshon Lattimore right now makes the job of the safeties a whole lot easier.
All that to say, it’s not as if the weight of the world is on Howden’s shoulders here. He likely won’t be tasked entirely with replacing Maye, and there are other options if he struggles. But Saints coaches and players are clearly high on Howden’s value. They want him to get the first crack at replacing Maye. More than that, this could even be an opportunity for Howden to take Maye’s spot and never give it back. The Saints are no strangers to putting their faith into young talent when they believe in the traits, as they did with Alontae Taylor.
The secondary will only be as strong as its weakest link. For the next three weeks, it’s going to be on the young Jordan Howden to prove he can keep this secondary humming along and not miss a beat in the absence of Maye.
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