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The Saints had a lot of things to deal with this offseason. Fixing their defense was not one of them. This unit was top-ten in virtually every important statistical category in 2021. Their 46 sacks ranked eighth, they were sixth in opponents completion percentage, sixth in interceptions with 18, and third in touchdown passes allowed at 20. New Orleans was even better versus the run, allowing the lowest yards per carry in the league and the sixth-fewest rushing scores. They were even top-ten in takeaways with 25.
With such success, it is no wonder the Saints' front seven remains intact. The team would have liked to keep the secondary together as well, but free agency and the retirement of Malcolm Jenkins forced their hand. The organization turned these losses into a plus by filling the holes with excellent replacements. Thus, the biggest issue this unit will face is a changing of the guard among the coaching staff where Dennis Allen replaces Sean Peyton at the top, and Ryan Nielson and Kris Richard were named co-defensive coordinators.
New Orleans has one of the league’s great defensive ends in Cameron Jordan. He is a three-down player that is an outstanding edge setter versus the run, an exceptional pass rusher, and a leader both on the field and off. From an IDP perspective, Jordan has been among the top 20 at the position every year since becoming a starter in 2012, with a trio of top-five rankings over the last five seasons, including 2021. He has at least 31 solo stops in ten consecutive seasons with an average of 36 solo and 17 assists. Jordan has reached double-digit sacks six times including last year, has forced at least two turnovers in nine of the last ten seasons, and averaged better than five batted passes. On top of all that, he’s been an iron man in terms of injury.
Jordan had somewhat of a down year statistically in 2020. The 33 solo tackles were his fewest since 2015 and the 7.5 sacks equaled his fewest since 2012. Those managers that tend to overreact at times, saw it as a sign of decline for the then 10-year veteran. Jordan answered those doubters with one of the better seasons of his illustrious career, going 38-21-12.5 with a pair of forced fumbles and 6 batted passes. So much for the man in decline theory. He will be 33 in July and there is still plenty of fuel in the tank.
When the Saints used the 14th overall pick on Marcus Davenport in 2018, they envisioned him as a bookend to Jordan. Davenport has been that guy when healthy but has dealt with a lot of relatively minor but nagging injury issues. He missed at least three games in each of his four seasons as a pro, including six in 2021. Not to mention all the games he played while not fully healthy.
Injuries remain a major concern with Davenport, who had surgery on his shoulder and finger in the offseason. On the other hand, it is hard to overlook the fact he averaged slightly more fantasy points per game than Jordan last year. In the nine contests he finished, Davenport totaled 23-14-9 with 3 forced fumbles and a recovery, including at least one sack in six of his final seven games while dealing with the shoulder and finger. The risk is real and will serve to hold down Davenport’s projected IDP value. The way I see it, that is an advantage and means we will be able to pick him up late in the draft, possibly even in the DL3 range. It’s never a bad thing to have a backup with top-12 potential.
If the injury issues continue for Davenport, the Saints are prepared. In Tanoh Kpassagnon and Carl Granderson, they have a pair of quality veteran options. Granderson won a roster spot as an undrafted free agent in 2019 and has nine career sacks from the backup role. Kpassagnon was a starter for the Chiefs before signing with New Orleans last year. He is a better run defender than pass rusher but has 11 career sacks over five seasons, including four with the Saints last year. Kpassagnon offers the additional option of moving inside on passing downs. Both of these players could see a fair amount of rotational action even if the starters remain healthy.
There is a young player we should not overlook here as well. The Saints picked up Peyton Turner late in the first round of last year’s draft. He saw some playing time early in the season when Davenport was out and was beginning to build a little steam when a shoulder injury cut his season short. Turner played 143 snaps before the injury, recording twelve combined tackles and a sack. With such a small sampling to see in his rookie season, we can look back to his college career for some insight into Turner’s potential.
Turner was a three-year starter for Houston, showing improvement each season. As a junior in 2019, he collected 33 combined tackles and 3.5 sacks in 12 games. As a senior in 2020, he was 17-8-5 with a forced fumble in a COVID-shortened five-game season. At 6-foot-5 and 270 pounds, Turner has the size, play strength, and college film that suggest he can be a successful three-down end at the pro level. As a run defender, he might be ready now. As a pass rusher, Turner has the quickness, agility, and athletic ability to get the job done, with room to improve in terms of technique and adding moves to his arsenal. He should earn at least rotational playing time this year at what has become a rather crowded position in New Orleans.
At a glance, the Saints would seem to have little to offer IDP managers in leagues that start defensive tackles. Shy Tuttle had the most solo tackles among New Orleans’ interior linemen with 19. Tuttle added 31 assists and a pair of turnovers, but with a zero in the sack column, he was not roster-worthy in most leagues. Chances are good that nothing will be different with Tuttle in 2022.
The player we need to look at here is David Onyemata. He finished last season with 32 combined tackles (12 solos), 2 sacks, and a fumble recovery. Those numbers will catch the eye of no one, but a deeper look makes him much more intriguing. Onyemata collected 18.5 sacks over the last five seasons, with a career-high of 6.5 in 2020. As is often the case with interior linemen, his tackle totals are not eye-catching, but Onyemata averages 21 solo and 17 assists as a starter. At 20-24-6.5 with a turnover and a pair of passes defended, he was the fantasy game’s number 12 tackle in 2020. Last year’s totals look much better when considering his season started in week eight after serving a suspension. Onyemata is not a threat to become one of the fantasy game’s elites at the position, but he is worthy of strong consideration as a late-round DT2.
In Malcolm Roach and Kentavius Street, the Saints have good veteran depth on the inside. Street comes over from San Francisco where he was a fourth-round pick in 2018 and saw significant action. Roach made the roster as an undrafted free agent in 2020 and stepped up nicely while Onyemata was suspended last year. The team also picked up Jordan Jackson in the fifth round this spring. He is an interesting developmental prospect who had 130 combined tackles and 12.5 sacks in three years at Air Force.
- DE Cameron Jordan – DL1 with elite tier potential
- DE Marcus Davenport – Injury risk with DL1 upside
- DE Payton Turner – Dynasty sleeper
- DE Tanoh Kpassagnon – Marginal value at best
- DE Carl Granderson – Injury sleeper with limited upside
- DE Taco Charlton – Could be the odd man in a crowded room
- DT David Onyemata – Solid DT2
- DT Shy Tuttle – Possible DT3 without much upside
- DT Malcolm Roach – Injury sleeper at best
- DT Kentavius Street – No impact
- DT Jordan Jackson – Dynasty watch list
On paper, the Saints have looked thin at linebacker in recent years. On the field, however, it has not been a major issue. The only proven veteran currently on the roster is Demario Davis, who is one of the more versatile yet underrated linebackers in the league. He was a third-round pick of the Jets in 2012 and has been a starter since 2013. Over five seasons with New York, one in Cleveland, and now four with the Saints, Davis has played on the weak-side and in the middle in 4-3 schemes, as well as inside in a 3-4. He is a smart, savvy player with enough speed, athleticism, and cover skills to play on all three downs. He accomplished as a pass rusher with 29.5 career sacks, including three last year, and is a sound, physical tackler with good instincts versus the run.
Davis’ most statistically productive season came in 2017 when he finished at 97-36-4.5, with a fumble recovery and 3 passes defended. That year he was the number eight linebacker. His second-best statistical season came in 2019 as the Saints’ middle linebacker when Davis finished at 87-25-4 with a pick and a career-high 12 passes defended and was the number twelve fantasy linebacker.
In 2020 the Saints began using a big-nickel as their base defense, deploying three linebackers less than 30% of the time. When they did so, Davis lined up on the weak side most of the time. It is hard to say how much the position swap is to blame, but his production has dipped over the past two seasons. With an average of 72-40-3.5, 6 pass breakups, and no takeaways, he ranked 20th in 2020 and 29th last year. At age 33, he is not out of gas by any stretch, but it is probably time for the organization to begin thinking about the future of the position. For now, consider Davis a low-end LB2 without a lot of upside.
The organization has already begun preparing for life after Davis but have they done enough? New Orleans picked Zack Baun in the third round in 2020 and Pete Werner in round two last year. Baun has been somewhat of a disappointment to date, playing 84 snaps as a rookie and 194 in year two. So far, he does not look like a player that can be counted on for a significant role in a defense that features two linebacker looks.
Werner played 400 snaps as a rookie and has already shown much more potential. He was a three-year starter at Ohio State and entered the league as close to pro-ready as a linebacker can be coming out of college. Werner is a physical tackler that is tough versus the run, with enough speed and coverage ability to stay on the field in sub-packages. That said, the coaching staff may have to protect him in some coverage situations as he continues to grow.
Werner has the potential to become a fantasy factor in his second season but is far from a lock to do so. His box score production with the Buckeyes was less than stellar as he averaged three tackles and two assists over 34 games while putting up marginal numbers in the big-play columns. The lack of splash plays showed up last season as well. Werner totaled 61 combined tackles, which is pretty strong for 400 snaps, but he left goose eggs in all the other columns. Davis is signed through the 2023 season so the coaching staff will be watching Werner’s development closely this year to see if he can be the man of the future. From an IDP perspective, he is worth a late-round shot as an LB5 with some upside
The rest of the depth chart at linebacker includes third-year, former undrafted free agent Kaden Ellis, Free agent addition Eric Wilson, and fifth-round rookie D'Marco Jackson. None of these players scream future starter. Wilson looked good while with the Vikings. He saw action as an injury replacement in 2018 and 2019, moving into the starting role on the weak side in 2020 when Anthony Barr was lost in week two. After playing well and putting up solid numbers as a starter, Wilson signed a free-agent deal in Philadelphia where he promptly bombed. After being released, Wilson landed with the linebacker-needy Texans where he fared no better. He gets pushed around too much as a run defender but can make some contribution in coverage situations. Beyond that, the Saints could be in trouble if they sustain injuries at the second level.
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