Marshon Lattimore locked in this summer. Can he have a career year when Saints need it most?

A theme has emerged this camp when players talk about Marshon Lattimore.

Those outside of the Saints’ facility often define the cornerback by the variations in his play, holding him to the standard of his highs while acknowledging that he doesn’t always achieve that mark. Lattimore has said the same, though he believes the narrative about his ups and downs is overblown.

But this year, the conversation is different because Lattimore looks the same every day. His teammates see a steady player, and the perspective of him through fresh eyes is also telling.

“Just how he comes to work every day. Not letting things up every single day,” rookie cornerback Paulson Adebo said. “Not being on and off. Every single day he’s locked in.”

It wasn’t long ago when people talked about Lattimore’s practice habits with a different tone. After his breakout rookie season, the cornerback often showed up on the wrong side of training camp highlight videos enough that his practice performances became a concern for fans and a legitimate storyline. Lattimore spoke that offseason about how he got bored in practices and had to find ways to keep himself focused and motivated.

Lattimore got beat a few times by Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans in the 2018 season opener and needed a few weeks to get on track. Over the next three seasons, there would be notable variations in the cornerback’s level of play. He’d put forth All-Pro performances against guys like Evans, Julio Jones and DeAndre Hopkins while being up and down against everyone else. Lattimore spoke last year about how he needed to find a way to treat everyone as if they are among the league’s elite.

We won’t know if Lattimore has reached that level until we see how he performs against teams with second-tier receivers. This week, the cornerback should be at his best against Green Bay’s Davante Adams, and Carolina’s receivers are good enough that the challenge should be worthy of Lattimore’s full focus. Really, the whole first half of the schedule features solid challenges. The only real soft spot might be New England, but Jakobi Meyers might be ready to break out after a strong preseason.

But the good signs are there. When Lattimore was younger, you would often see him dancing between snaps, or you’d overhear former defensive backs coach Aaron Glenn getting on Lattimore about his focus. This year, Lattimore has looked like all business. During training camp, you might not even notice Lattimore for a few days unless you were looking for him because his coverage was so good and so sticky. He performed so well that he only allowed receptions on 10 of the 21 attempts tried against him during one-on-ones, a drill that significantly favors the wide receiver.

“I think every year there’s been a little bit more maturity with that player,” defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said. “And so, in that regard, yeah, I think he’s continuing to develop in that area.”

Malcolm Jenkins has reached the stage of his career where things are no longer just about him. He’s still focused on playing well, but his purpose is more external now. He wants to help his team win and for his teammates to reach their potential. He saw a particular area of focus right away when he signed with the Saints last season.

When studying film, he saw what everyone else saw in Lattimore. So, Jenkins set out early last year to do whatever he could to help Lattimore stay focused and play up to his maximum potential. Lattimore’s 2020 season was solid but still had some inconsistencies, especially early in the season. But Jenkins sees a focus this year that has him excited about what Lattimore can do.

“If his competition was not as high, you could see him take his foot off the gas,” Jenkins said. “This year, we haven’t seen that. He’s been locked in every day and on every single rep, locked in no matter who’s in front of him. Especially this year, without having Jackrabbit (Janoris Jenkins) on the other side, he’s going to be the guy that we expect to take whoever he’s lined up against out of the game. That’s the expectation I have for him and the expectation that the defense has for him. I think he needs to have that expectation for himself.”

This year is a crossroads of sorts for Lattimore. He’s in the final year of his contract, and while he’ll undoubtedly get paid something close to the top of the market on his next contract, he could push himself all the way to the top if he consistently plays up to his potential.

The Saints need that level of play just as much. If New Orleans can count on Lattimore to handle his assignment each week, it will be able to send more help toward the other cornerback, whether that be Ken Crawley or Paulson Adebo. That outcome would make the defense significantly better and make it easier to mask weaknesses. So, in many ways, Lattimore is one of the keys to this season.

There is still some question about whether Lattimore will be available the whole year or not as the specter of a possible suspension for his offseason arrest still hangs overhead. But without a court date yet being set, it remains possible that any league punishment won’t come until much later, if at all, this season. And there seems to be some growing optimism toward that possibility, but no one can know for sure how the league will handle the situation.

But being there won’t be enough. The team needs Lattimore at the peak of his powers. At least for now, the seeds were planted for hope to spring throughout the summer. But anything can look good during the summer when the sun is shining, and the world is idyllic. Only the hardiest blossoms thrive through the fall and winter.

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