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Saints 2021 offseason preview: Linebackers

Saints linebackers key in top-4 run defense

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2020 Season Review

The Saints defense finished as a top-4 run defense for the third year in a row, once again under the leadership of All-Pro Demario Davis. Davis has been one of the best linebackers in the NFL since arriving in New Orleans, as his steady play and leadership both on and off the field have had a great impact on the entire team. Joining Davis at linebacker were Alex Anzalone and Kwon Alexander, as well as rookie Zack Baun. Davis was the only linebacker, and one of just four players, who started all 16 games in 2020. The Saints tended to bring either Chauncey Gardner-Johnson or Malcom Jenkins down into the box in order to help the run defense, as both could be used as hybrid linebackers/safeties due to their size and tackling ability.

Kwon Alexander made his Saints debut in Week 10 against his former team, the San Francisco 49ers, after being acquired via trade in Week 9. His arrival improved the Saints defense, as they gave up fewer than 20 points in his first four games in New Orleans. Unfortunately, Alexander suffered a torn Achilles in Week 16, ending his season, and possibly hampering his future in New Orleans.

2020 Personnel

(Player-Snap Count)

Demario Davis-1,151

Kwon Alexander-350 (7 games)

Alex Anzalone-642

Zack Baun-102

Upcoming Free Agents

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Alex Anzalone

4th-year inside linebacker Alex Anzalone recorded career highs in starts (9) and defensive snaps (642) in 2020. Despite this, he failed to record an interception, sack, forced fumble, or fumble recovery. The former Gator is much more of a run defender, as he recorded 3 tackles for loss and 4 stuffs in 2020.

Anzalone is unlikely to garner a whole lot of interest from the rest of the NFL, so if he can be brought back at a reasonable price, I believe the Saints should do it. However, I do not believe the Saints will prioritize Anzalone, and may look towards rookie Zack Baun to take the reins at MLB if they elect to spend what little money they have on other players.

Other Questions

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Will Kwon Alexander be back?

The Saints traded a 5th-round pick and Kiko Alonso to the San Francisco 49ers in exchange for Kwon Alexander on November 2nd. Alexander started seven games for the Saints before tearing his Achilles in Week 16. This was the third year in a row that Alexander had been placed on injured reserve, and arguably the most serious injury of his career. Alexander is a very talented player, but he is currently the 5th-highest paid player on the Saints in terms of total amount of dollars, and his cap hit over the final two years of his contract will be around $13 million per year.

If Alexander is to remain a Saint, it is likely that they will have to restructure his contract. A $13 million cap hit for a player coming off an Achilles tear could be a big detriment. The Saints are a better team with Kwon Alexander on the roster, so I believe they will try and restructure his contract at some point in 2021. If they are unable to however, it is likely that Alexander will be released, as his cap hit is just too high.

Is Zack Baun ready for a larger role?

3rd-round pick Zack Baun played primarily on special teams during his rookie year, but was also one of just four linebackers who played over 100 snaps on defense in 2020. Baun was drafted to play on defense, not special teams, and it is highly likely that he will be called upon to do so next season. Based on the Saints cap situation, I believe it is more likely that one of either Kwon Alexander or Alex Anzalone will be gone next season than it is that both will be back. This means that Baun will likely be in line for an increased role on defense barring a draft pick or free agent signing.

Baun is likely to step into the hole left by the potential departure of Alexander or Anzalone, meaning he will play nearly half the snaps of Demario Davis. The Saints lined up safeties like C.J. Gardner-Johnson and Malcolm Jenkins in the box a lot in 2020, and would likely continue to do so if they are not confident in Baun or any other linebackers on the roster in 2021. I believe Baun will be able to produce numbers similar to that of Anzalone if he is called on to do so, but I do not see him being as good or productive as Kwon Alexander was this season.

Potential Free Agent Targets

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K.J. Wright

K.J. Wright has been a member of the Seattle Seahawks since they drafted him in 2011. In that time, he has been one of the most consistent outside linebackers in the NFL, recording over 85+ tackles in all but three seasons, two of which were injury shortened, and the third was his rookie season. If Wright is wanting a change of scenery, then the Saints should pursue him if they are looking to move on from either Anzalone or Alexander (and hopefully another Seahawk might follow).

Denzel Perryman

Perryman has been a solid contributor on the Chargers defense since being drafted out of Miami (FL). He has combined for 116 tackles in 27 games played and 16 games started over the last two years, and is an excellent run defender. He has been used mainly as a rotational player at middle linebacker over the last few years, but is a good option that could potentially be signed to an affordable deal.

Potential Draft Targets

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Zaven Collins

Tulsa linebacker Zaven Collins was almost unanimously thought of as the top linebacker in college football in 2020. He won both the Nagurski and Bednarik awards, given to the best defensive player in college football, and was unanimous All-American. The last three players to achieve this feat have been Chase Young, Jacksonville’s Josh Allen, and Johnathan Allen, all of whom have turned into great players in the NFL.

Collins is a players who can do it all, as he recorded 4 interceptions and 4 sacks on top of 54 tackles in just eight games in 2020. He is mocked to go to Cleveland with the 26th pick in the most recent ESPN mock draft, so the Saints may have to trade up in order to grab him, but possibly won’t have to move up that much.

Nick Bolton

Inside linebacker Nick Bolton has been one of the best linebackers in the SEC over the last two seasons. Combining for 198 tackles and 3 sacks over his sophomore and junior years. Bolton was named to the All-SEC first team in both 2019 and 2020. Being thought of as the best linebacker in arguably the best defensive conference in college football is nothing to ignore.

Bolton is being mocked around where the Saints are selecting in the first round, so it is likely they will not have to trade up in order to get him. Bolton would be an upgrade over Anzalone, and would be a younger and more reliable option than Kwon Alexander. If both linebackers are lost, Bolton would be a realistic replacement with a huge upside.

2021 Preview

The Saints linebacking core could look very different in 2021. Only four linebackers took more than 100 snaps on defense in 2020, and two of them may not return in 2021. Alex Anzalone is the most likely player to not come back in my opinion, as the Saints will have other priorities and not much money to work with when trying to re-sign players. Kwon Alexander may be a cap casualty as well, as he is currently one of the highest earning players on the team, and will be coming off an Achilles tear late in 2020. I could see Alexander sticking around, as he is a great player who makes the defense better, but not without a restructured contract.

The good news is that All-Pro Demario Davis, who has been the leader of the defense since arriving in New Orleans, will be around for a while, as he signed a 3-year $27 million extension in 2020. As long as Davis is in town, the Saints should have a solid run defense, but do not be surprised if we see two or three new faces at linebacker in 2021.


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