The New Orleans Saints won 14 games (including playoffs) in 2018, falling just short of their second Super Bowl berth. The team did it with balance on both sides of the ball, including a defense that started to show big improvement in 2017. The Saints certainly don't lack star power either. Offensively, few teams can boast the talents of Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas, and one of the league's most dominant offensive lines. New Orleans has also built a formidable crew on the defensive side of the ball as well. Defensive end Cameron Jordan, cornerback Marshon Lattimore, defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, and linebacker Demario Davis are among the NFL's best at their positions, while second year end Marcus Davenport exhibited star potential as a rookie. Players such as cornerbacks Eli Apple and Patrick Robinson, along with safety Vonn Bell are also expected to give continued contributions as veteran playmakers, as well as a deep crop of role players that has given the defense good depth. Here are a trio of defenders though that have had some excellent moments, but whose continuing improvement could not only elevate themselves to stars, and make the 2019 Saints defense into one of the league's elite units.
Alex Anzalone, linebacker
Anzalone, a 3rd year pro from Florida, played a full productive season in 2018 after his rookie campaign was cut short by a shoulder injury. A 3rd round pick in 2017, Anzalone started the first four games before being sidelined, but had been showing improvement with each week. He appeared in all 16 games in 2018, teaming with Davis and A.J. Klein to give the Saints arguably their best linebacking unit in decades. Anzalone was tied for 4th on the team in tackles (59), forced 3 fumbles, had 2 sacks, along with 1 interception. The 6'3 241-lb. linebacker can play either inside or outside, and has proven that he can be an every down defender. Anzalone is a fast and athletic linebacker who plays the run extremely well, is an effective blitzer, and possesses solid man to man coverage ability. His drops and movement through zone coverages have become much smoother as well, and he deftly roams sideline to sideline to make plays. Anzalone has the instincts and athleticism of a Pro Bowl caliber defender. His continued development would combine with Davis to give the Saints a versatile and devastating duo at linebacker.
Marcus Williams, safety
Williams (2nd round), like Anzalone, was part of an amazing 2017 draft class that also included Lattimore, Kamara, and offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk. Williams has already shown glimpses of stardom in 2017, when his 4 interceptions were second on the team and helped earn him a spot on the NFL's All-Rookie squad. His interception and tackle total took a significant drop last season, but he did have a quarterback sack, along with a forced fumble and fumble recovery to his 2 interceptions and 59 tackles. Williams has good athletic ability on the back end, along with solid instincts for the safety spot. He struggled at times in 2018 though, and was at times a bit slow in his reaction to both plays over the top and in front of him. Williams did play extremely well close to the line of scrimmage in 2018, an added element to his game from his rookie year. The Saints have put together a good crew of cornerbacks, and added a potentially exciting playmaker in rookie 4th round pick Chauncey Gardner-Johnson. Williams showed good instincts as a centerfield safety in 2017, and if is able to revert back to that playmaking form could help elevate the New Orleans secondary to a new level.
David Onyemata, defensive tackle
Onyemata has gotten better in each of his previous three seasons. He has played in all 52 of the Saints regular season and playoff games since joining them as a 4th round draft choice in 2016. Once considered a project when coming out of Manitoba College in Canada, Onyemata has blossomed into an important cog of the talented New Orleans defensive front. The 6'4 300-lb. Nigerian-born tackle has good prototypical NFL size and strength, but also freakish athleticism for a player his size. His 4.5 sacks last season were a career high, but Onyemata was often able to affect the opposing team's pass pocket more than what his sack total would indicate. His improved ability against the run has enabled him to play increased snaps, something that the Saints defense will need desperately in 2019, particularly to open the season. Sheldon Rankins is expected to be out of the lineup until at least midseason due to an Achilles injury suffered last postseason. Onyemata's skillset inside will be counted on, along with offseason signee Malcom Brown, to give the defense continued strong interior play. Onyemata is in a contract year, so a big season could not only mean a big free agent payday for himself in 2020, but also be one of the final pieces to an equation that equals an elite New Orleans Saints defense in 2019.
Which Saints defender do you expect the biggest improvement from in 2019?
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