by Mike Triplett, The Times-Picayune
Sunday May 03, 2009, 10:10 PM
As a rookie last season, Saints cornerback Tracy Porter started the first five games before dislocating his right wrist. He flourished in his limited playing time, finishing with one interception, five pass-defenses and 32 tackles.
The Saints have completely revamped their secondary this offseason, adding five new players in hopes of shoring up their most glaring weakness.
Perhaps the greatest reason for optimism in the embattled position group, though, is a player that’s been in the fold all along — second-year cornerback Tracy Porter.
Porter, 22, is essentially heading into his redshirt-freshman season with the Saints. Although he won a starting job during the preseason last year, he played in just five games before a dislocated right wrist ended his season.
Still, the speedy 5-foot-11, 186-pounder did enough in that brief playing time to mark him as the player to beat in the suddenly-crowded position battle at cornerback.
“Tracy Porter, I like a lot. Not a little — a lot,” Coach Sean Payton said before the Saints added first-round pick and defensive back Malcolm Jenkins in the draft.
Porter, however, isn’t taking anything for granted. He said he’s heading into this summer like a player who’s fighting to get noticed.
“They’re brining in new competition, but every year there’s going to be competition,” Porter said. “I’m definitely going to work hard as if I’m not the starter. I’m going to work hard to show the new defensive coordinator (Gregg Williams) and my position coach (Dennis Allen) that I belong out there on the field.”
Porter, who had one interception, five pass-defenses and 32 tackles last season, said he feels a little bit like a veteran and a rookie at the same time.
He has been in New Orleans for a year, so he’s helping to usher in newcomers like Jenkins, rookie safety Chip Vaughn and free agent additions Jabari Greer, Darren Sharper and Pierson Prioleau.
“But I’m still in that young player category,” Porter said. “I’m still trying to make a name for myself.”
Porter, a native of Port Allen, started to do that last summer after arriving as a second-round draft pick out of Indiana University.
His first NFL training camp got off to a rough start when he suffered a hamstring injury that sidelined him for two weeks. But when he was on the field, his speed and skills were evident, and Payton showed enough faith in Porter to plug him into the starting lineup from Week 1.
Porter immediately had his share of highs and lows.
He was terrific during a season-opening victory against Tampa Bay at the Superdome, hounding the Buccaneers’ receivers all afternoon. Porter then was burned badly in a Week 2 loss at Washington, giving up a 67-yard touchdown pass to receiver Santana Moss in the fourth quarter that allowed the Redskins to come from behind and win.
Porter’s ability to bounce back from that play was impressive. He showed the kind of confidence that cornerbacks need in the NFL — especially rookies — and the kind of confidence that can allow him to bounce back from his lost season.
“Corner is one of those positions where you want to be confident, but not over-confident,” Porter said. “And when you give up a big play, you need to have a short memory.”
Porter played well during the next three weeks — at Denver, home against San Francisco — when he got his first career interception — and home against Minnesota on “Monday Night Football.”
But it was late in a loss to the Vikings when Porter injured his wrist. He was covering receiver Aundrae Allison, who ran a deep route toward the end zone. But as quarterback Gus Frerotte’s pass floated down the field, another Vikings receiver who was running the wrong route, Bernard Berrian, collided with Porter.
To add insult to injury, Berrian caught a touchdown pass in the process, helping to defeat the Saints in another come-from-behind loss.
“It was hard at the beginning,” Porter said of the mental recovery process. “I was down, because I was steadily improving week by week, becoming a better player. It was very frustrating; it was also frustrating to sit at home watching on TV while my teammates were out there competing without me.
“But me, I’ve always believed everything happens for a reason. I don’t know what that reason is. Maybe it was good for me to sit down and learn the game more from watching on the sidelines.”
Porter said the physical recovery took a few months, but he’s now completely healed.
“I’m ready to go,” he said. “If the season would start tomorrow, I’d be ready to play. I’m excited and ready to go.”
Porter also is enthusiastic about the changes the Saints have made to their defense. He likes Williams’ track record and his aggressive style. He said even though Williams told the players that he knew all about them from watching tape, Porter made a point to introduce himself to Williams after the first team meeting “to put a face with the name.”
“I think (Williams’ style) will suit me very well,” Porter said. “I consider myself a versatile player who can adjust and fit any scheme, and if there’s something I don’t know, I’ll take the time to learn it and put in the work.”
With so many new additions — from Williams to Jenkins to Greer to Sharper and Porter himself — he said the Saints have an opportunity to turn a former weakness into a strength.
“We definitely had that opportunity last year, too, but we just had so many injuries,” Porter said. “But we have that opportunity again. If we do what we’re supposed to, this is definitely going to be a secondary to be reckoned with.”