Pro Football Focus released their post-draft projections for all 32 NFL teams and their starting lineups. For the New Orleans Saints and other clubs, the site chose to look at 11 personnel (three wide receiver sets) on offense, and nickel packages on the defensive side of the ball.
According to PFF only six teams did used nickel packages on less than 50% of their defensive snaps. New Orleans was most certainly one of them at they hardly rolled out their base defense in 2020. That means that in this projection, only two starting linebackers and a third cornerback (a slot corner) were selected on defense. Meanwhile, a third wide receiver and no fullback were projected for the offense.
While most of these selections look to be accurate at this time, what might change as the offseason rolls along?
While PFF lists linebacker as the position to watch, most Saints fans will be keeping their eyes on the boundary corner spots going into 2021. Will Paulson Adebo be ready Week 1 to take over opposite Marshon Lattimore? Will Lattimore even be available for the team to open the season after his offseason arrest? This is an extremely volatile position for the Saints as there’s simply no telling where it can go at this point.
The team has made it apparent that they will not rule out pursuing a veteran cornerback in the market. Landing one could help to solidify some of the murkiness around the position heading into camp. However, if Adebo (who has a ton of potential) stands out in camp and looks more pro ready than expected after opting out of his 2020 collegiate season, that would be a huge win for New Orleans.
Who will play center in 2021? Erik McCoy or 2020 first-round selection Cesar Ruiz? Ruiz was reportedly drafted to take that very position, but after a truncated offseason and injuries during what little camp was available, he never got to pick it up. Instead, he started beside Erik McCoy at the right guard spot and struggled to open the season, though he did improve throughout.
Now the question will be whether or not it’s worth it to keep Ruiz where time has already been dedicated, or go back to the original plan and switch McCoy and Ruiz. I’ve been in the camp advocating for Ruiz to go back to his natural position at center, but can certainly understand arguments for the contrary.
Wide Receiver 2
This one was interesting with Marquez Callaway currently projected as the Z receiver opposite Michael Thomas. Tre’Quan Smith was drafted in the third round of the 2018 draft after averaging 19.8 yards per catch his final season at UCF. It seemed very much like he was drafted to be a field stretcher. However, in 2018, the Saints downfield attack dramatically shifted (though there was evidence of such an adjustment earlier). It felt like Smith never really got the chance to provide what he was drafted to bring to the team, being asked to play in the slot instead.
Could this season finally be an opportunity to get back to his field-stretching days? According to PFF, 2020 UDFA star Marquez Callaway and his closing 21.2 yards per catch in college may have something to say about that. It will be very interesting to see how this plays out. Neither Smith nor Callaway are speed demons by any means, but they’ve shown a penchant for making plays downfield nonetheless. To add more competition to this spot, the Saints are also interested in working 2021 seventh-rounder Kawaan Baker in on the outside. Who wins this spot?
This was PFF’s “Battle to Watch”. Will the linebacker beside Demario Davis be rookie Pete Werner or second-year player Zack Baun? Could it possibly be someone else? The Saints have a lot to figure out here. We all saw the enormous benefit that came with the addition of Kwon Alexander last season at the trade deadline. This position carries great value.
Pete Werner is my favorite for the moment. Just seems ready to hit the field as is and bring all the right tools to produce immediately. He’s not shown that he can be a playmaker on the second level, but he does a lot of things consistently well and there’s value in that. As for Baun, the transition from pass rusher to off-ball linebacker is not an easy one, and he really hasn’t had the chance to make it. He was another player changing position during a truncated and injury-delayed offseason during last year’s training camp. He may need more time.
David Onyemata has played primed himself to become one of the NFL’s best defensive tackles in the 2021 season. He’s continued to grow, polish, and wreak havoc for opposing offenses. But who clogs the middle along with him?
Onyemata can operate both as a pass-rushing three-tech and can collapse inside as a one-tech. But keeping him over the B-gap as a pass rusher might be in the Saints’ best interest. Keep an eye out then for former UDFAs Shy Tuttle and Malcolm Roach to battle it out for that interior spot. Will be interesting as well to see how many edge defenders get snaps inside this season as well. Marcus Davenport, Cam Jordan, Tanoh Kpassagnon, and even rookie Payton Turner all have the capability to do so.
Bonus: I’m not one to leave fullbacks out of the equation, The battle at fullback is currently between former Carolina Panther Alex Armah as well as former Northern Illinois linebacker Sutton Smith. In fact, both players are converted linebackers. Armah already has the NFL fullback size and experience, so I’ll take him at this spot. But I love a good fullback compeition.
Which position battle are you most looking forward to? Make sure you follow Canal Street Chronicles on Twitter at @SaintsCSC , “Like” us on Facebook at Canal Street Chronicles, and make sure you’re subscribed to our new YouTube channel. As always, you can follow me on Twitter @RossJacksonNOLA and subscribe to my daily Saints podcast, Locked On Saints.