Historically, the Saints have found more success drafting linebackers in the middle rounds than they have in the first. In fact, you can argue that drafting linebacker in the beginning of the draft has been a complete failure for New Orleans. Mark Fields, selected 13th overall in the 1995 draft as many of the Dome Patrol and moved on is the only true linebacker of note with a 9 year NFL career (6 in NOLA) while making it to one Pro-Bowl. Yet, there are many who argue he under-performed to his expectations.
Players like Rick Middleton (13th Overall, 1974), Alvin Toles (24th Overall, 1985), Les Kelly (26th Overall, 1967) and Stephone Anthony (31st Overall, 2015) played very little in New Orleans with none of them starting more than 19 games. Not exactly what you hope to see out of the first round.
However, more success has been found in the following rounds with players like NFL Legend Rickey Jackson (51st Overall, 1981), fellow Dome Patrol stand-out Pat Swilling (60th Overall, 1986), and Joe Federspiel (99th Overall, 1972), Winfred Tubbs (79th Overall, 1994) came in the second or third rounds of the NFL Draft.
So maybe all of this history points to the Saints drafting Zack Baun in the 3rd round (even though he was one of their Top 40 prospects) as a good thing. What looks to be a versatile playermaker fell right into the round the Saints have made a habit in finding talent.
How will Zack Baun fit into the defense? Well, that’s tough to really pin point because of how he was sued while with Wisconsin which was just about everywhere. Baun lined up on both the strong and weakside of the field as an EDGE player rushing from a 2. point stance who also showed the ability to drop back into coverage at a very high level.
Attached at the bottom of this article is a quick film study from his 2019 game against Michigan St. One play in particular I believe caught the Saints eye from this game takes place about thirteen minutes in when Baun makes a one handed interception reaching back into his zone as he’s trailing in the opposite direction. One area the Saints defense has struggled in recent years has been playmaking and forcing turnovers. With his 12.5 sacks, 19.5 tackles for loss, 2 forced fumbles and an interception during his senior New Orleans is hopefully getting a boost to not only their front seven but to a category thta has rated at the bottom of the league. (Turnovers forced).
From a scouting perspective, let’s go over what Baun did well during his senior year and what needs improvement based on the four games I watched.
- Quick feet with very good hip mobility
- Rangy. Athletic ability to cover RBs out of backfield and drop into short zones
- Mental processing/FBI
- Very good burst and bend to run the arc and capture the edge in pass rush
- Effective as a speed looper in inside stunts
- Had a good swat/rip move he used often to get around tackles
- Good play strength at the point of attack. Easily took on tight ends to set the edge.
- Too many “one and done” reps against lengthy tackles. When long-armed he was neutralized and rarely recovered after losing his rush momentum.
- Not enough moves in the tool box to counter NFL caliber offensive lineman. Will need to add variety and a more solid pass rush plan.
- Bit undersized to be a full time EDGE rusher. More of a tweener EDGE/LB, though has experience on both side of the ball.
- Struggles in man coverage and mirroring routes
With the departure of A.J. Klein in free agency the possibility of Baun sliding into his spot is there. Demario Davis captained the weak side primarily while Alex Anzalone or Kiko Alonso manned the middle linebacker spot in the rare occasions the team went with their base defense.
Maybe his best attribute as a defender is his aggressive nose of the play and the ball carrier. Baun does a good job of closing of lanes and attacking without losing himself or his composure. He’s still an ascending pass rusher whose athletic ability will cause immediate issues for offensive linemen even if the move variety is lacking.
More importantly, Baun might come in as the healthiest, zone coverage, and pass rushing linebacker not named Davis. Given the injury history of Alonso and Anzalone this isn’t too far of a stretch, but Anzalone’s athletic ability made him a prime candidate of the mike linebacker spot to help in coverage. It’s possible Baun get’s looks here as well in camp, but it’s also hard to envision Allen taking away too many pass rush opportunities off the edge for Baun.
As mentioned by Skiver in his article here, the Saints could even take a page out of the Panther’s playbook by using Davis and Baun to “Sugar The A Gaps” on passing situations; showing pressure before dropping back into coverage. This is something they’ve also done with Anzalone but haven’t been able to develop consistent success with his injury problems.
To fit in with Allen’s scheme I think it will be important to keep him as an off ball backer who is kept clean by the defensive line in front of him. This is also why I like the idea of him playing on the strong side behind Cameron Jordan who has been one of the better edge setters at his position for quite some time. The All-Pro level play of Jordan should keep Baun clean which will allow him to use his athletic ability to it’s full potential.
From a pass rushing standpoint, this also opens up the possibility of elongated stunts where Jordan and Sheldon Rankins combine to attack outside while Baun takes a quick loop in behind to attack the A gap. This type of rush requires a high end speed rusher than the Saints simply haven’t had for some time, but it’s a type of play that has been used effectively against the Saints offense in recent years. His hand usage is also pretty good even with a limited move set, and when he wins initially its extremely difficult for linemen to recover in time to limit the rush.
New Orleans took half an hour to work on a trade to move up to get Baun, and Payton sees him as a player who can play a myriad of positions (specifically mentioned EDGE, Mike and Sam). It will be interesting to see how exactly Baun looks in training camp and in the preseason to get an idea of how the Saints will use their new defensive playmaker.