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Back in New Orleans again, Patrick Robinson adjusting to nickel role in more aggressive Saints defense

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Patrick Robinson is back in New Orleans because he possesses a special set of skills. 

A defensive back who plays the slot, or a nickel in popular parlance, is a highly specialized role, different both than the role a true cornerback plays on the outside and the role a safety plays. 

And it's more important than ever. A nickel used to be a specialist, a part-time player who only saw the field in certain situations. 
All of that has changed. The nickel has been a de factor starter in NFL defenses for years. 

"He's playing 70 percent of the snaps," defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said. "That nickel player is a starter, and he's going to play more snaps than the Sam linebacker."

New Orleans brought back its former first-round pick on a four-year, $20 million deal because Robinson was one of the best nickels in the NFL last season.

"I think that's a difficult position to play,' Allen said. "You're required to have the athletic skill set to cover in man-to-man, much like you would on the outside lanes like a corner, but there's a mental aspect that goes on in there, and things happen a lot faster inside in the slot. Gaining that experience has certainly helped him."

Working in the slot for the Philadelphia Eagles, Robinson made 47 tackles, a sack, four interceptions and 18 pass breakups in the regular season and put his own stamp on Philadelphia's Super Bowl run with a pick-six against Minnesota in the NFC Championship game. 

But the nickel role he'll be playing in New Orleans is not quite the same as the one he played for the Eagles.

"It's very aggressive, more on the man-to-man side," Robinson said. "I would say this past year, it was more of a zone defense when I was in Philly. Here, it's more aggressive, more blitzing, more of a man-to-man type defense. I'm still trying to get used to it."
A lot of the same skills that make nickel a specialized position still apply, but there's a big difference. 

"That changes a lot," Robinson said. "As far as a man-to-man defense, you're more focused on one or two people, but if you're in zone, you've got to have eyes and awareness for everyone in that area.

By signing Robinson, the Saints might be signaling something of a change in how they plan to handle the nickel position.

For the past two seasons under Allen, the Saints have used three-safety sets heavily, deploying former safety Kenny Vaccaro as the nickel who covered receivers out of the slot. 

New Orleans has also used cornerbacks in the role — P.J. Williams played the position at times last year, among others — but the Saints haven't had a player whose primary role was to handle the slot. 

  
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A player like Robinson. New Orleans will still likely deploy its three-safety sets against personnel groupings that feature two tight ends or two backs, but when three receivers are on the field, the Saints want an extra cornerback out there. 

And with an experienced nickel like Robinson, Allen might be able to mix in a little bit more zone.
"The thing is just understanding what it feels like to play in there," Saints cornerbacks coach Aaron Glenn said. "Understanding where your leverage is, understanding where your help is."

A good player in the slot can help take a defense to the next level. While the typical slot receiver used to be a small, agile possession type, the position has evolved in offenses. Big-bodied receivers and tight ends have become weapons out of the slot, and when teams want to take attention off of their best receivers, they often move them to the inside. 

Robinson was signed to handle all of those challenges. A former first-round pick, Robinson admits he was a little "bitter" about the way his first five seasons in New Orleans ended because he wasn't able to live up to the expectations, but he's no longer the same player who joined the Saints back in 2010 as a rookie. 

Outside expectations don't matter as much anymore. Robinson is focused on doing the job the Saints hired him to do. 

"I'm going to be honest, and I don't want to sound like a rude guy or a mean guy: I don't really pay attention to what the fans do," Robinson said. "If you get caught up in that, you're going to be high, and if things go wrong, you're going to be low. I'm just trying to do my job."
A job that is more important in the NFL now than it's ever been before. 




Delvin Breaux returns to CFL's Hamilton Tiger-Cats on 1-year deal

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METAIRIE, La. -- Former New Orleans Saints cornerback Delvin Breaux is returning to the CFL's Hamilton Tiger-Cats, where he was an all-star in 2014, a source confirmed to ESPN.

Breaux, 28, signed just a one-year deal in hopes of a possible NFL return next year, according to the source. The news of his signing was first reported by 3DownNation.

Breaux was one of the NFL's great stories in 2015, when he became a breakout star for his hometown Saints 10 years after breaking his neck in a high school game. The physical 6-foot-1, 210-pounder played at nearly a Pro Bowl level that year with three interceptions and 19 pass defenses while serving as New Orleans' No. 1 cornerback.

However, Breaux's career was derailed by a pair of broken fibulas -- one suffered in Week 1 of the 2016 season and another suffered in a slightly different location during the 2017 preseason. He never returned to the Saints' lineup last year because of a minor setback during his rehab. Then the Saints decided not to make him an offer as a restricted free agent this year.

Breaux reportedly had visits with the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos that didn't result in job offers, among other possible suitors. His injury history certainly couldn't have helped his case. The New Orleans Advocate reported that some teams didn't clear Breaux medically because of his past spine injury.

That high school injury prevented Breaux from playing at LSU. But he worked his way back through semi-pro and arena leagues and eventually the CFL, where he starred in Hamilton from 2013 to '14.

Breaux had 33 tackles for the Tiger-Cats in 2014 with five pass breakups, three forced fumbles and an interception, which he returned 27 yards for a score.




New Orleans Saints DT Sheldon Rankins Primed for a Breakout

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For the first time in the Sean Payton Era, the New Orleans Saints could actually field a defense that strikes fear in opposing offenses. They have a young and talented secondary and have made efforts to improve their front seven with the offseason additions of Demario Davis in free agency and Marcus Davenport in the draft.

While 2017 Defense Rookie of the Year CB Marshon Lattimore and (finally-)Pro Bowl DE Cameron Jordan might be the most talked about players on the Saints defense, it’s actually DT Sheldon Rankins that Bleacher Report has named as the Saints’ biggest breakout candidate:

Basically every New Orleans Saints rookie broke out in 2017, but the team’s top 2016 draft pick is still awaiting his coming-out party.

Will this be the year for defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins?

The 2016 No. 12 overall pick made a much bigger impact as a 16-game starter in 2017 than he did as a rookie reserve in 2016, but his sack total actually dropped from four to two despite the fact he got more work on the edge.

It wasn’t as though he wasn’t creating pressure, though, which is why Rankins knows he has to become a better finisher.

“Now, it’s all about improving, whether it’s just finishing plays,” Rankins said recently, per Herbie Teope of NFL.com. “I had a lot of pressures, a lot of quarterback hits, but now it’s time to turn those into sacks. A lot of tackles around the line of scrimmage, but now it’s time to turn those into (tackles for loss). It’s time to be a leader for this defense.”

Sophomores Alvin Kamara, Marshon Lattimore and Ryan Ramczyk all already look like stars. So if the Saints are going to take a big step forward in 2018, it would help if third-year early-round picks Rankins, Vonn Bell and David Onyemata took their games to the next level. And it starts with the big 24-year-old Louisville product.

NFL.com has even recognized that Rankins is posed to take more of a leadership role on the Saints defense. Check out this self-aware quote from Rankins to NFL.com:

“Get some film and watch it,” Rankins said emphatically. “I think what I do speaks for itself. I think I’m versatile. I can rush the passer, I can stop the run, I can do whatever the defense needs me to do. I’ll always carry that with me in and out of every season, and my mindset won’t change.”

He’s not wrong. While Rankins finished with a pretty quiet stat line in 2017 (26 total tackles and 2 sacks), he graded out as an above-average Defensive Tackle according to Pro Football Focus. He also added this interception to highlight his year:
A returning Alex Okafor and the addition of Marcus Davenport on the defensive line should help Sheldon Rankins generate more pressure in the interior, and Rankins take a big step forward in 2018, watch out.





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