Much like wide receiver Michael Thomas and running back Alvin Kamara did after lucrative contract extensions in 2019 and 2020, Lattimore has been playing some of his best football since signing his five-year, $97.6 million deal last month. And he has done it despite having thumb surgery in Week 2 and playing with a cast on his right hand the past three games.
Lattimore was named the NFC’s Defensive Player of the Week for Week 5 after locking down Washington Football Team wide receiver Terry McLaurin in the 33-22 win and recording a career-high six passes defensed, tied for the most by any NFL player in the past 15 years, according to ESPN Stats and Information.
Now the Saints (3-2) will be counting on the three-time Pro Bowler against two of the league’s most elite wide receiver groups the next two weeks after coming off of their bye: at the Seattle Seahawks on Monday Night Football, then home against quarterback Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“He’s had an incredible focus this year,” said new Saints secondary coach Kris Richard – who knows a thing or two about dominant defensive back play after directing the “Legion of Boom” in Seattle.
“It’s a testament to his preparation and essentially his love for the game,” Richard said. “He goes out there, he’s got a lot of faith in who he is as a player and his ability. And he loves ball. So it’s not a surprise.”
Lattimore also had dominant performances in Week 1 against the Green Bay Packers, when he primarily shadowed the league leader in receiving yards in Davante Adams; and in Week 3 at the New England Patriots, when he had an interception and 10 tackles during his first game with the cast on.
The one blip on the radar for Lattimore and the entire Saints defense was their fourth quarter collapse against the New York Giants in Week 4.
Pro Football Focus has Lattimore rated third among NFL cornerbacks so far this season with his highest grade since 2017, when he was named the league’s Defensive Rookie of the Year after being drafted with the 11th overall pick out of Ohio State.
“I watched him last week versus Washington and saw a lot of on-the-ball production, which tells you that he is playing aggressive coverage, challenging breaks and in a position to finish on the ball,” said ESPN analyst and former NFL defensive back Matt Bowen. “His hips and feet work in unison, can mirror releases, has the physical traits to be aggressive -- and his closing speed and length allows him to get to the ball.”
Lattimore (6-foot, 192 pounds) has always boasted an ideal combination of speed and physicality for the position. The only knock on his game has been some occasional bouts with inconsistency.
Even Lattimore himself admitted in the past that his focus tended to wane at times when he wasn’t facing elite competition. However, Lattimore said this summer he thinks that narrative got overblown, while saying he has the confidence that he is the “best in the league.”
And nobody has ever doubted Lattimore’s focus and intensity in marquee matchups. Lattimore said he prefers to shadow top receivers.
“Yeah, I like that way better. Way better. Lock in on somebody and do my job,” Lattimore said after he got the better of McLaurin.
Lattimore will likely shadow DK Metcalf on Monday and longtime rival Mike Evans the following Sunday – though, neither is guaranteed, since the Seahawks also have a dangerous threat in Tyler Lockett and the Bucs are more loaded than ever with Antonio Brown now thriving alongside Evans and Chris Godwin.
Lattimore has dominated Evans in most of their matchups over the past four years. So it will be interesting to see if New Orleans changes its approach after Brown’s emergence.
The Saints’ faith in Lattimore is evident, considering they made such a substantial investment in him despite major salary-cap limitations. They see the 25-year-old as a building block.
They also invested in him despite his offseason arrest on a stolen gun charge in his hometown of Cleveland. That case has not been resolved, but it remains possible that he will avoid any league discipline.
Lattimore’s high level of play has been especially important for the Saints because of the question they had at the No. 2 cornerback spot heading into the season. The Saints were so unsure of their depth that they traded for Houston Texans veteran Bradley Roby in Week 1. However, rookie third-round draft pick Paulson Adebo has held down the job so far by playing very well outside of that Giants loss.
“Look, I honestly feel like cornerback is the hardest position to play in the National Football League,” Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said. “And when you have talented people like [Lattimore], it does allow you a little more flexibility in what you can do and how you can play the other guys.
“There are a lot of times where he is on their best guy and is by himself. That is certainly one of those things where we feel like we have the advantage in that matchup, regardless of who he’s going up against. It allows us to utilize the other 10 guys on the field to do a lot of different stuff.”