At Wisconsin, the New Orleans Saints’ first third-round draft pick Zack Baun grinded for every single snap that he got in his five years. As Owen Riese at Bucky’s 5th Quarter points out, Baun was initially a walk-on at Wisconsin before getting a scholarship. He was a quarterback in high school, but starting in 2016 Baun started playing outside linebacker. He didn’t truly breakout until 2019.
However, Baun’s willingness and versatility make it obvious why the Saints would seek him out. While he’s listed as an edge rusher, Baun has the ability to play in coverage — although he struggles in man. He can adapt in a Saints defense that has trended towards becoming positionless, but Baun may struggle right out of the gate.
At 6-feet-2-inches and 238 lbs., Baun has athleticism to spare. He has a solid vertical that can help him sitting in coverage, and his sideline to sideline speed is a draw. Where he lacks a bit is in the size department, and he’ll have to play out of position again once he joins the Saints.
These are the kinds of things that Michael Hodges will need to iron out. While the read option isn’t prevalent in the NFL, it’s all about keeping containment. Baun bites on the fake inside and goes for the running back, leaving the edge wide open for the quarterback. Cameron Jordan will undoubtedly be able to teach Baun to stay home overtime, but Baun needs to keep his eyes on the ball.
The other concern for Baun is that he tends to get blown up when he engages with offensive linemen. While he’s excellent when he gets going downhill, he needs an element of surprise to disrupt a quarterback.
Baun can ultimately thrive on these types of plays. On a stunt, he successfully gets inside of the Michigan State tackle. By doing these, he disrupts the play and forces a throw into double coverage. This play is set up by Wisconsin frequently dropping Baun into coverage, so when he stunts inside, it catches the offense off-guard and he impacts the play.
The biggest places that Baun will have to improve are in man-to-man coverage, direct engagement on the offensive line, and diagnosing plays off the ball. He’s very good at containing the run in the backfield, and he’s also strong in zone coverage. However, his instincts will definitely need some polishing, especially because the Saints will be asking to play out of position.
The next (and biggest) question will be where he fits for the Saints. Jordan and Marcus Davenport more or less have the pass rushing spots locked down, but Sean Payton has already implied that Baun will likely be moving inside to some degree, saying that Baun is capable of playing as a will or a sam, per Ryan Wing.
Sean Payton on Zack Baun: “High makeup player. Versatility with him. He can be a designated pash rusher. Can play inside at Mike or Sam position.” Said took them about a half hour to trade back up to get him— Ryan Wing (@RyanWingFOX11) April 25, 2020
All of Baun’s tape indicates that he’s perfectly capable of playing in those spots. As a Jack at Wisconsin he played almost exclusively in the two-point stance, and he’s best used sparingly as a blitzer (which works for the Saints, as Demario Davis is already a top blitzing linebacker in the NFL).
With that in mind, we may see a bit of 2015 Panthers in this defense if the Saints give Baun a lot of snaps early. That team loved to line up in a nickel or 3-3-5 and bring one or both linebackers into the A-Gaps, before blitzing or dropping one or both of them into coverage. That was most effective on third downs, like so:
First of all, you have to appreciate the chess match at the line from Luke Kuechly and Aaron Rodgers. This play goes on forever, but there’s just nowhere to go. It’s beautifully covered downfield by the Panthers, the line doesn’t give Rodgers anywhere to escape to, and the Panthers record a third-and-9 sack.
On the other side of this, Baun could only be used situationally. The Saints were always looking for depth at linebacker in this draft, as counting on Alex Anzalone and Kiko Alonso to stay healthy is risky at best. A lot of his issues are coming off the ball right now. If Hodges is as good as Mike Nolan was for the Saints, he could develop Baun into a phenomenal linebacker.
It’s easy to see what the Saints saw in Baun to trade up for him. He’s versatile, he’s willing, and he’s athletic. His weak points right now lie in his strength, his instincts and his ability to follow the ball at times. The Saints took him as a luxury/depth pick, and he’s ultimately a very good one. While he can make an impact on day one for New Orleans, and will very likely see snaps early and often, the Saints are obviously hoping Anzalone and Alonso can stay healthy.
In the meantime, a linebacker room comprised of Davis, Anzalone, Alonso and now Baun will suffice for the Saints. We will have to track Baun’s progress, but the potential is undoubtedly there for Dennis Allen, who has shown that he is capable of adapting his defense to his personnel the past few years. Baun only gives Allen more options to do so, and that in and of itself makes him an enticing pick.