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How Vonn Bell’s departure impacts Saints’ draft needs

Bell’s departure shifts the team’s needs ahead of the draft, but it might actually create a need in a different position altogether.

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The Saints reportedly offered Vonn Bell a deal hovering around $7.5 million per year, but before waiting for his response, they pulled the trigger and signed the recently released free agent safety Malcolm Jenkins to a deal averaging $8 million per year.

I’ve always loved Jenkins as a player and, even more, as a leader. Still, it stung letting go of a an ascending player who was 25 years old while choosing instead to pay more money to a 33 year old who is closer to the end of his career than the beginning.

The Saints should never have let Jenkins leave in the first place, but instead they overpaid Jairus Byrd in one of the worst free agent signings in franchise history. After more than half a decade of watching Jenkins flourish in Philadelphia, the Saints have finally tried to right one of their past wrongs.

It’s just slightly puzzling to me that the Saints were so quick to hand Jenkins a hefty contract after he posted his weakest season as an Eagle. He had earned PFF grades in the mid to high 70s every year as an Eagle since 2014 with the exception of 2019.

There’s a reason the Eagles didn’t want to pay Jenkins $7.5 million to play for them this year, but that seems to have more to do with his age than his level of play, leadership capabilities, and impeccable durability.

Considering Jenkins chose to sign with the Saints for $32 million over four years rather than asking for what he reportedly asked from the Eagles, perhaps it’s not so puzzling why the the Saints chose that $8 million figure. Instead, they may have actually signed him for a decent bargain.

Whether moving on from Bell and back to Jenkins was the right move will take some time to fully realize. Two to three seasons to be exact.

Jenkins’ contract is more like a two year deal with no guaranteed money past 2021 and relatively low dead cap hits coupled with relatively high cap savings if the Saints cut him in either 2022 or 2023. Bell signed a three year deal with the Bengals averaging $6 million per year.

It appears the Saints wait for no one and keep their offseason checklist rolling at a blistering pace. Bell may have simply waited a day too long and effectively cost himself several million dollars as the Saints moved on to another free agent who unexpectedly became available at the same time.

Though Bell and Jenkins play the same position, and had nearly identical PFF overall grades last year, their strengths and weaknesses are completely inverse of one another. Bell’s strengths were undoubtedly in run defense and pass rushing where he earned PFF grades of 90.3 and 82.5 respectively. Bell’s weakness, however, was in coverage where he earned a more paltry 51.9 grade from PFF.

At times, Bell played more of a linebacker role than safety, and he excelled in that capacity. His downhill tackling style and run stuffing allowed the Saints to often line up with only two traditional linebackers. Jenkins, however, is more of a true safety and less of a “linebacker.”

Jenkins’ overall PFF grade (68.6) is only four points higher than Bell’s (64.6), but his coverage grade is far better at 69.6. It’s interesting to note that Jenkins’ superior coverage grade led to zero interceptions in 2019, while Bell’s inferior grade came during a season in which he finally gathered his first interception.

However, despite his more pedestrian season in 2019, Jenkins did almost double his interceptions as an Eagle after leaving the Saints. After catching six interceptions in five seasons with the Saints, Jenkins gobbled up 11 interceptions in six seasons with the Eagles.

It’s also interesting that despite Jenkins’ inferior pass rush grade (65.1), his five sacks in 2019 were two more than Bells’ in the same season. So, it seems grades don’t tell the full story just as individual stats don’t tell the full story either. The intangibles of experience and leadership are hard to quantify as well.

The Saints have added depth to the secondary with the restructuring of Janoris Jenkins’ contract along with the signings of veterans Malcolm Jenkins, D.J. Swearinger and even XFL rising star Deatrick Nichols.

They’ve also maintained their depth across the defensive line with the signing of Noah Spence, the resigning of David Onyemata, the extension of Cam Jordan, and hopefully the healthy returns of Sheldon Rankins and Marcus Davenport.

They now have high quality leadership at every level with the defensive line’s Cam Jordan, the linebackers’ DeMario Davis, and the secondary’s Malcolm Jenkins. After gushing over the incredible roster Mickey Loomis has stitched together, though, one position group stands out with lots of questions marks around depth and durability.

Following the surprise signing of Emmanuel Sanders to function as a true number two wide receiver alongside Michael Thomas, the position of most need in the draft is now quite clearly linebacker.

DeMario Davis hasn’t missed a game in his eight year career and Craig Robertson has only missed seven games in the same time span, but the same can not be said of their positional teammates.

Alex Anzalone has only made it through a 16 game season once in 2018. His rookie year, he played in four games before injuring his bad shoulder, and last year he only played in two games before undergoing another season-ending shoulder surgery. He’s one of the most physically talented linebackers on the roster, but that shoulder, which has hampered him since college, has remained a problem throughout his professional career.

Kaden Ellis started off strong last season, contributing heavily on special teams, and looked like another seventh round draft pick diamond in the rough, but he didn’t make it past week three and went on injured reserve with a knee injury. Same story with Colton Jumper, who didn’t make it to September before going on injured reserve.

The only other linebackers on the Saints’ current roster are Andrew Dowell, Chase Hansen, and veteran Kiko Alonso who tore his right ACL for the second time in the Saints’ first round playoff loss to the Vikings. Alonso has also torn his left ACL in the past, and even if given a generous timetable to return, that doesn’t put Alonso back on the field until August or September at the earliest.

Depth and durability are an obvious weak point and the loss of A.J. Klein in free agency only compounded that issue. In addition, because the Saints are switching from such a good run stuffing safety in Bell to one more comfortable in coverage in Jenkins, that takes away another valuable player in run defense and creates even more need for another playmaker at the linebacker position.

Luckily, this year’s draft is ripe with quality linebackers who seem ready to play at the professional level. My fellow CSC contributor Nate Williamson put together a great linebacker wishlist for the Saints if they are so lucky to see any of these players fall to the #24 draft slot.

If the Saints can address the linebacker position through the draft and somehow avoid the injury bug, this could be one of the strongest Saints rosters of the last ten years. Dare I say, this could be one of the strongest Saints rosters ever.