Saints have found a scrappy playmaker in safety Justin Evans

·5 min read

The New Orleans Saints secondary illustrated the value of versatility in their preseason loss to the Houston Texans – both in scheme and personnel. The team may have their starting safety tandem in Tyrann Mathieu and Marcus Maye, but a quiet free agency signing back in March demanded attention with Saturday night’s performance: safety Justin Evans.

When head coach Dennis Allen commented early in the offseason about coveting interchangeable safeties with complementary skill sets, it was fair to think that vision was primarily for the two starters. If we’re going off last year’s depth chart, former Saints safeties Marcus Williams and Malcolm Jenkins were backed up by P.J. Williams and C.J. Gardner-Johnson, respectively. P.J. Williams wouldn’t have been the first name in mind as a run stopper, and Gardner-Johnson’s short-area quickness and motor as a blitzer are traits that serve greater value in the slot. It’s hard to imagine a disguised look with Williams in the box while Gardner-Johnson backpedaled into single-high coverage. Neither the starters nor their backups seemed remotely interchangeable.

Those defined roles were reflected in New Orleans’ employment of coverage in the 2021 season. They ran single-high coverage on over half of defensive snaps, primarily in Cover-1 (29%) and 25% in Cover-3. Comparatively, in two-high safety coverage, they ran 20% of snaps in Cover-4 and just 12% in Cover-2.

It was slightly astonishing to see that out of 61 defensive snaps against Houston, the leading coverage was Cover-4 at 34%. Cover-2 was second highest on 23% of snaps, and only 11 plays (18%) were in Cover-1. It’s all but a complete antithesis of the emphasis on single-high safety coverage that played to Marcus Williams’ strengths. The preseason opener saw Maye, P.J. Williams, J.T. Gray, and Justin Evans drop back at free safety. Those same players often rotated throughout each coverage. It lines up with the ever-rotating secondary that has shined throughout training camp; each safety has dropped back into strong and free, vice versa, and split-safety coverage.

While training camp illuminates team trends with a larger data set, preseason matchups often see scrappy playmakers make a case. Justin Evans’ performance was a statement. Watching it back on film only bolstered his impressive performance, and it was reminiscent of traits I saw when I watched his 2017 and 2018 film over the offseason. In comparison to Marcus Maye – who, in fairness, was nearly impossible to evaluate in coverage on the New York Jets – Evans displayed better range on film. His diagnosis of run plays in high coverage stuck out. He was communicative with his teammates pre-snap and adjusted to cover the slot based on reading receiver alignments.

With just 24 career games played due to multiple season-ending injuries, including the entire 2019 and 2020 seasons, I had analyzed his production per snap. It’s more indicative of playmaking abilities regarding perennially injured players. Evan’s per snap rate of interceptions (0.30%) and pass deflections (0.61%) showed high upside. Moreover, he had the highest percentage of combined and solo tackles per snap of all five safeties analyzed. That showed up quickly on film in his eager downhill pursuit against the run, and he took good angles to tackle in open space. His technique was a bit reckless, and that bolstered concerns of an injury history that kept him off the playing field for the last three seasons.

It’s incredible to consider that Evans hasn’t played a down of football since Week 10 of 2018 in light of his performance in New Orleans’ preseason opener. Evans recorded two solo tackles, defended a pass, and recorded an interception late in the third quarter – on third down. Dennis Allen talks about situational football fairly often in his training camp press conferences, and multiple defensive backs have spoken on the value of mental toughness. We talk about the two-minute offense on that side of the ball, but third-down turnovers are extremely valuable in a team’s defensive counterpart.

Evans stood out further beyond the production numbers. In his first snap in the slot, he was patient in soft coverage and absorbed the physicality of the incoming receiver to take away a target on third down. His solo tackles made his statement. He made an incredibly quick read the moment Jeff Driskel set his feet and traveled about 8 yards in seconds to hit poor, unassuming Chris Moore like a freight train on 3rd and 23. After backpedaling to Houston’s 30 two plays later, he flew downhill in pursuit of a screen pass to make a tackle in open space. Play only made it four yards.

Out of 23 snaps played, Evans spent 26% of those at corner, 4% at slot, 48% at split-safety, and dropped back into single-high coverage for the remaining 22%. Two of his standout plays came on third down. His head was on a swivel, dropping back at the snap with eagerness to fly into the backfield from 30 yards out. Stats don’t always tell the story, but Justin Evans showed Saturday night that the Saints were right to take a chance on a player with solid traits and upside as a playmaker. There’s more work to do, but he’s positioning himself to make the final roster.

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Story originally appeared on Saints Wire