The New Orleans Saints have rebuilt a defense over the last two years that had previously ranked near the bottom of the league, primarily with high draft choices and smart free agent spending. The result has been a faster and more aggressive defensive unit that pressures opposing offenses and creates turnovers. New Orleans ranked around the middle of the league in most defensive categories when it came to yards surrendered, but near the top of the NFL in sacks and interceptions. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore and defensive end Cam Jordan are already among the league's best players at their positions. Today, we have a look at four Saints defenders who look to be difference makers on a still improving unit.
Marcus Williams, S
Williams is already considered an emerging star in many circles. The 42nd overall pick in the 2017 draft was one of four Saints voted to the NFL's All-Rookie Team, and gave New Orleans a ballhawking presence at safety that they'd lacked since the 2009 championship squad. His 4 interceptions were second on a Saints defense that ranked 3rd in the league in pick-offs. Despite Williams' slight build, he showed himself to be a solid tackler and run defender as well, finishing 3rd on the team in total tackles. One of the team's biggest offseason questions is how Williams will respond to the missed tackle on Minnesota's Stefon Diggs that led to the Vikings last second playoff win over New Orleans in January. It must not be forgotten how well Williams played in that game, and that it was his acrobatic interception that helped fuel a second half Saints comeback. He is an athletic, traditional center field type of safety who reads the opposing quarterback well and makes fast and aggressive breaks on the ball. Williams played at a Pro Bowl level at times last season, and has worked out with extra motivation this offseason, looking to build on the momentum of a successful rookie year.
David Onyemata, DT
Onyemata was arguably the most disruptive New Orleans lineman not named Cam Jordan down the stretch of the 2017 season. Considered a raw project when drafted by the Saints in the 4th round of the 2016 draft from Manitoba, Onyemata worked his way into the defensive line rotation by the end of that season, appearing in all 32 games over his two seasons and starting six last year. He had 2 sacks in 2017, but applied consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks from the defensive interior, while having the athleticism to move outside in some alignments. Onyemata's improvement against the run has him rounding into an every down defender. His rapid progression has Saints coaches hoping that Onyemata next emerges as a Pro Bowl caliber defender. The hope is that he will team with Sheldon Rankins, the 12th overall pick in 2016 and potential star in his own right, to give New Orleans a disruptive and devastating interior combination.
Alex Anzalone, LB
Lost in the historical success of the Saints 2017 draft class was that neither coaches or fans have yet to see if their athletic 3rd round pick at linebacker belongs in the conversation with that talented group. Anzalone, the second of three Saints 3rd round picks a year ago, and the 76th overall selection, played in just 4 games before a shoulder injury ended his season. He emerged from last preseason as a starter, starting all four contests before his injury. Anzalone has terrific athleticism, the ability to pursue sideline to sideline, rush the passer, or drop effectively into coverage. He has the ability to be an every down player at any of the linebacking spots, though his best fit looks to be on the weak side. He did look lost in the defense at times last season, particularly in coverage, but was playing better with each week, and was among the Saints top tacklers at the time of his injury. Anzalone's injury past are by far the biggest concern, dating back to his college days at Florida. He was labeled as a 1st round talent, with all star abilities, but now must stay on the field to prove it for a New Orleans defense that has re-built it's linebacking unit over the last two seasons.
Trey Hendrickson, DE
Hendrickson, like Anzalone, had his rookie season hampered by injury. The third of the Saints 3rd round picks last year, 103rd overall, was drafted out of Florida Atlantic in hopes of providing an edge rushing threat opposite Cameron Jordan. His preseason got off to a slow start because of nagging injuries, but Hendrickson quickly worked his way into the line rotation as the season went along. He sets the edge well against the run, has a non-stop motor as a pass rusher, and a long reach to disrupt the opposing quarterback. Hendrickson had 2 sacks and a forced fumble while appearing in 12 games as a rookie. He missed four games down the stretch of the season with an ankle injury, but returned in time for the playoffs and played well. He will be in the mix for playing time this season with last year's starter Alex Okafor, George Johnson, and this year's 14th overall pick Marcus Davenport at defensive end. Trey Hendrickson, Alex Anzalone, David Onyemata, and Marcus Williams help make up a young core of Saints defenders that have already had success early in their careers. Continued improvement of these talented players, among a handful of others, is key if the Saints are to develop into an elite NFL defense.
Which of these New Orleans defenders do you expect the biggest improvement from in 2018?
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