Zack Baun has been a bit of a question mark ever since he was drafted by the New Orleans Saints in the third round of the 2020 NFL draft.
Would he play linebacker? Edge? Or some sort of hybrid?
This question is still largely unanswered, as far as his long-term role. However, it was recently reported by Nick Underhill of neworleans.football that Baun will be competing as a weak-side linebacker, after playing on the strong side last year.
Zack Baun is competing at Will linebacker this year. He played Sam as a rookie.— Nick Underhill (@nick_underhill) June 8, 2021
This would likely mean he’d be competing with rookie Pete Werner, who the Saints seem to have a vision for at that Will position. This is a transition to a completely different skillset needed positionally to be effective, after he had already made a transition from college to his rookie year position-wise.
The idea behind placing Baun at the Sam spot last year was a sound one.
Due to the fact that the Saints play mainly Nickel defense (2 linebackers), the strong-side backer is usually only in the game for maybe 5-10 snaps a game on early downs, 3rd/4th and shorts or goal line situations. So, playing him at Sam was supposed to be a way to ease him in on a few snaps as the season went along, and see what he had while getting him some experience.
It also kept him near the line of scrimmage, as the Sam backer is often like a 5th defensive lineman on the edge, effectively. This was important because Baun was a pass rushing outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense with the Wisconsin Badgers — and he was a very good one.
Wisconsin’s Zack Baun (@zackbizzaun) is having a heck of a season. Against Ohio State, he recorded 10 tackles and a sack (now 7.5 on season) and was wreaking havoc for Ohio State’s rushing attack.#WNSFilm pic.twitter.com/WAt2siBKZc— Devin Jackson (@RealD_Jackson) October 28, 2019
His 90.9 PFF Pass Rush grade and 13 total pressures both ranked 8th among qualifying edge rushers in 2019. His run defense was always solid, as he was effective at setting the edge and had the burst to take off after bouncy running backs. And while he wasn’t in coverage very often, he held his own when he had to, breaking up three passes and picking off two of the 28 targets that went his way.
He displayed his burst on special teams in 2020, grading as one of the Saints best kick coverage specialists on 96 snaps. In a limited sample, he also showed the ability to chase down ball carriers and hunt down flat routes off of play action while playing on the edge.
But it’s hard to envision him as a purely off-ball linebacker right now with such limited tape. After all, Will linebacker is a position that requires much more play recognition and open-field niftiness than the Sam spot.
I bet he could produce some mean linebacker blitzes, but as far as how he’ll do reading run plays from the second level, manning up tight ends or playing the overhang role in zone coverage — we just don’t know.
There is some evidence there of translatable skills, athletically. He’s got pretty bendy hips and linebacker speed. He’s really just a pass rusher in a linebacker’s body.
So ultimately, it will just come down to how well he plays in camp and preseason at the Will spot. If he shows progress from last year and is able to step in, more power to him. But I think the best-case scenario for Baun is for him to keep manning that Sam-backer spot until he develops at Mike or Will.
This way, he can serve as a depth piece at those other positions, while still contributing on special teams and when the Saints defense goes to Base (3 LBs) vs sets with only one or two receivers.
It’s good that he’s competing at that Will spot for the experience, but I wouldn’t be concerned if he doesn’t get the job. Just in his second year, you’d be surprised at the growth that can happen behind a guy like Demario Davis after an extended amount of time.
I wouldn’t be surprised if he starts off the year only playing Sam. But if someone goes down due to injury, causing him to step in at Mike or Will, he’ll either sink or swim. The result might give us an answer to the questions around Zack Baun’s future with this team.
What do you think Zack Baun’s future with the Saints will look like? Let us know in the comments. 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 @AndrewBell_98.