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Welcome back for year 29 of the Eyes of the Guru column. Last summer, I started a new tradition with the EOTG, posting team-by-team rather than a division at a time. The goal here is to give our customers a more steady diet of information in smaller doses.
These teams have been covered so far:
Arizona | Atlanta | Baltimore | Chicago | Cincinnati | Cleveland | Denver | Detroit | Green Bay | Houston | Indianapolis | Jacksonville | Kansas City | Las Vegas | LA Chargers | LA Rams | Minnesota | New Orleans | Pittsburgh | San Francisco | Seattle | Tennessee
There is another step in the evolution of the column this year as well. I have talked about the need for positional realignment among edge defenders and interior defensive linemen for several years now, and the True Position format has finally arrived. Not every league host site has come to see the light, but many have. The rest are eventually sure to follow.
Going forward, I will be treating and labeling all edge defenders as defensive ends. This will include 4-3 defensive ends, 3-4 outside linebackers, and anyone else in the new hybrid schemes of today's NFL that makes a living by chasing quarterbacks off the edge. Likewise, the defensive tackle position will include all interior defensive linemen in 4-3 schemes and all down linemen in 3-4 alignments. As a result of this approach, we have eliminated the constant arguments and flip-flopping of positions among these players.
For reference, when mentioning where players finished in the rankings last season, my model will be the standard Footballguys scoring system. This is the basic stuff:
- Tackles = 1.5
- Assists = .75
- Sacks = 4
- Forced fumbles = 3
- Fumble recoveries = 3
- Interceptions = 4
- Passes defended = 1.5
- Touchdowns = 6
When tackle numbers are mentioned, solo stops and assists are generally not lumped together. Unless there is a reference one way or the other, tackles refer to solo stops. When talking about the total number of takeaways for a player, I am counting interceptions, fumble recoveries, and fumbles forced since all of these are scored very similarly in most leagues. Keep in mind that based on scoring systems, rankings will vary (sometimes greatly) from league to league.
From time to time, the rookie corner rule will be referenced. For those who are new to IDP or the EOTG, the rookie corner rule is the basic fact that in the NFL, starting a rookie on the corner is like throwing chum to the sharks. Offensive coordinators will target young and inexperienced players as weaknesses. Thus, these guys have an accelerated number of opportunities. Often these players are the cream of the crop at the position (which is why they are starting so soon), and their numbers will begin to drop steadily after their rookie seasons.
After an outstanding 2021 campaign that saw them finish among the top ten in virtually every important statistical category, the Saints defense slipped in some areas last year. The run defense slid to 24th in yards allowed and 19th in yards per carry, and after taking the ball away 25 times the previous season, New Orleans was one step out of the cellar with 14 last year. While those are things the team will look to clean up, there is no reason to be overly concerned because the unit did everything else very well.
The New Orleans pass defense was outstanding, allowing the second-fewest yards through the air, the second-fewest yards per attempt, and the third-lowest completion percentage. The Saints are perennially among the league leaders in sacks, and 2022 was no exception, as their 48 was the fifth most. For the icing on the cake, just four teams allowed fewer points.
There will not be many new faces in this year's lineup. In free agency, the organization signed a couple of defensive tackles that will contribute and a safety that could see the field, but no big-name starters. They used their first two picks on the defensive line, landing tackle Bryan Bresee, who could be a week one starter, and defensive end Isaiah Foskey who could eventually find his way into a starting spot.
The Saints have never been shy about using early-round draft capital on the defensive line. Since 2011 when they took Cameron Jordan, they have used five first-round picks on those positions. It has paid dividends, as the 2022 season marked their sixth consecutive with at least 42 sacks.
Jordan has been the cornerstone of this defense over the last twelve years and a perennial IDP star. Since becoming a starter in 2012, he has fallen short of 30 solo tackles just once (2013) and has never dropped below seven sacks in a season. He's reached double-digit sacks six times with a career-best of 15 in 2019, and has reached 40 solo stop twice with a career-best of 48 in 2017. He is a regular in the top ten and has multiple top-five finishes to his credit.
Jordan has been an iron man in terms of injuries, missing very few games over the course of his long career. Indeed, it seems the only thing that can slow him down is father time. He turned 34 in early July but has, so far, shown no sign of imminent decline. So far is the key term here.
Jordan put up a career-high 66 combined tackles last year (39 solo), but his sack total slipped under double-digits for the second time in three seasons. I am not suggesting that he will fall off the face of the earth in 2023. Quite the contrary, I think he has a couple more productive years in him. The point is that pass rushers tend to decline quickly once they reach a certain point. Jordan has reached a stage in his career where we have to consider that risk. With Jordan in the final year of his contract, the Saints will soon have to consider that risk as well.
They will never say it out loud, but the organization has been preparing for life after Jordan over the last couple of seasons. They finally gave up on Marcus Davenport but picked Peyton Turner in round one in 2021 and Isaiah Foskey in round two this spring. Ironically, the guy they are likely turning to as the starter opposite Jordan this year, and possibly as Jordan's replacement in the future, is fifth-year, former undrafted free agent Carl Granderson.
Granderson played well in spot duty in 2020 and 2021, going 22-17-8 with a pair of forced fumbles in limited action. He opened last season as the third man behind Jordan and Davenport, but when Davenport was banged up again, missing weeks ten and eleven, Granderson stole the spotlight. He went on to see more playing time than Davenport in seven of the final eight games.
With overall numbers of 30-23-5.5, Granderson is not getting a lot of attention from the average IDP manager this offseason. Don't be an average IPD manager. After moving past Davenport, Granderson went 21-16-5 with a fumble recovery in eight games. He reached double-digit points in six of those eight contests, with three sacks over the final four and an average of almost eleven points per game. At the very least, Granderson will get a chance to prove his strong finish was not a fluke. I don't believe it was, and have been grabbing him at a bargain price in a lot of leagues.
Peyton Turner missed much of his rookie season, playing sparingly in year two. In year three, it will be time to show what he has learned. The 28th overall pick in 2021, Turner has three career sacks to date and 314 snaps worth of experience to get him ready for a bigger role. As the third man in the rotation, he probably won't see enough action to make an IDP impact unless one of the starters is hurt, but he will see enough action for both the Saints and IDP managers to evaluate and speculate on his future.
Like every other early-round defensive end the Saints have drafted, including Cameron Jordan, Isaiah Foskey is destined to ride out his rookie season with a role that gets him on the field for about ten snaps a game, mostly in passing situations. What he does with those snaps will speak volumes about his future and the team's plans for the post-Jordan era. Foskey needs to improve as a point-of-attack run defender if he is ever to land a full-time role. He had good tackle numbers at Norte Dame, but it was the 25 career sacks that made him a second-round pick. For what it's worth, some draft experts compared Foskey to Yannick Ngakoue. I think that's a good call.
It has been a long time since New Orleans last gave us a great IDP option at the tackle position. David Onyemata was a borderline second starter at times. He followed coach Ryan Nielsen to Atlanta, and last year's other starter, Shy Tuttle, was not re-signed. That leaves two holes to fill. One of the jobs should go to first-round rookie Bryan Bresee while the other is tough to call. I expect an open competition between free-agent additions Khalen Saunders and Nathan Shepherd and holdover Malcolm Roach for that spot. Regardless of who wins the title of starter, all four of these guys are going to see at least rotational action.
Breese has some IDP potential despite being very quiet statistically at Clemson. He is tall at six foot five and thick at 298 pounds but is quick and athletic for his size. Bresee is relentless from snap to whistle and is hard to move even with double teams. He doesn't have much to offer as a pass rusher beyond pure power but has the physical skill set to change that with some good coaching. Bresee gets off blocks well in traffic which is a good sign for his tackle potential at the pro level. Outside of dynasty leagues, he is not draft-worthy at this stage but is worth keeping an eye on.
- DE Cameron Jordan – Solid DL1
- DE Carl Granderson – Target late as a DL3 with a high DL2 ceiling
- DE Payton Turner – Watchlist player with breakout potential
- DE Isaiah Foskey – Dynasty target
- DE Tanoh Kpassagnon – No impact
- DT Bryan Bresee – Watchlist worthy in tackle-required leagues
- DT Khalen Saunders – Marginal impact
- DT Malcolm Roach – Marginal impact expected
- DT Nathan Shepherd – Marginal impact at best
There is no mystery surrounding the Saints' linebacker situation. The only real question is when will Pete Werner replace Demario Davis as the centerpiece of defense? Davis has long been among the most underrated linebacker in the league. He is dependable in all facets of the game, but his leadership quality may be his biggest contribution to the team. At 34 years old, he can still play at a high level and is signed through the 2024 season, but the writing is on the wall, especially when it comes to statistical production.
The best production of his career came in 2017 when Davis went 97-36-4.5 with a fumble recovery, finishing seventh among linebackers. The only other top twelve of his career was in 2019. Since that time, his production has been on a steady decline. In 2019 he had 87 solo stops. In 2020 it was 74, then 69, and last season all the way down to 54. Davis managed a career-best seven sacks in 2022, but his tackle totals have fallen so far that he still landed outside the top 30. At this point, he has become a borderline LB3/LB4 with more downside than up.
Pete Werner is a player on the rise. As we are seeing more and more with young linebackers, his role was limited as a rookie in 2021. It expanded considerably in year two. Werner was seeing at least 80% and as much as 98% of the snaps every week before an ankle injury cost him several games last season. He eventually returned but was far from 100% the rest of the way.
This is a player I am excited about for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, I feel he is on the cusp of becoming a perennial top-twelve linebacker. Secondly, he is still significantly undervalued in most leagues, which makes him a bargain-priced stud. At a glance, Werner's 2022 numbers are not all that impressive at 57-24-0, with 3 pass breakups and a pair of forced fumbles. What those numbers don't tell us is that Werner was the fantasy game's sixth-ranked linebacker when he suffered the ankle injury. Through eight games, he was on pace for 113-42-0, 4 turnovers, and 6 passes defended. Adding a little more fuel to the fire, Werner was seen during OTAs working in sub-packages that he did not participate in a year ago.
Kaden Ellis was there to step in when Werner missed time last season. Ellis followed Coach Nielsen to Atlanta as well, leaving the Saints thin at the linebacker positions. Zach Baun was a third-round pick in 2020 but has not seen the field much. He will see what little action there is for a third linebacker and is likely the next man up if either Davis or Werner are lost.
- MLB Demario Davis – No more than an LB4 or bye week depth with marginal upside
- WLB Pete Werner – Solid LB2 with a little upside
- SLB Zack Baun – Injury sleeper
- MLB Ty Summers – No impact
- SLB Ryan Connelly – no impact
- WLB Andrew Dowell – Possible injury sleeper
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