With all of the talk around the New Orleans Saints secondary heading into 2021, it’s easy to forget about the other positions of need for Dennis Allen’s unit. Among those positions are the flanks for superstar Demario Davis. Linebacker is by far one of the most sparse positions on the Saints roster right now, and whether or not the Saints have done enough to address it is the question.
In the past, the Saints have had slightly-below average to passable coverage at linebacker, with Alex Anzalone and A.J. Klein helping to mask deficiencies elsewhere on defense. Say what you will about Anzalone and Klein, but both players were active defensively and were rarely exposed. Klein would go on to join former Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott in Buffalo, whereas Anzalone followed Dan Campbell to Detroit.
With all of that being said, why haven’t the Saints placed more emphasis on linebackers this offseason? The rumor mill has followed Kwon Alexander all offseason, but at this point it’s hard to imagine that happening. Jeff Ireland and Mickey Loomis drafted Ohio State’s Pete Werner to help the position, but there will undoubtedly be some growing pains. Werner logged 185 tackles, with 16 coming for a loss and four sacks in college. More impressively, however, he defended nine passes in 2018 alone, which is very likely what the Saints saw in him.
Davis needs to be able to do anything on defense. Whether he’s blitzing, dropping into coverage or making reads, he’s going to be the best on the field for the Saints doing it. With that in mind, we might see a lot of hybrid sets out of the Saints this year. Malcolm Jenkins and C.J. Gardner-Johnson have proven adept at crowding the line in the past. Expect to see a lot of that as the Saints get comfortable.
Allen has proven to be very comfortable running nickel and dime defenses, and nickel is quickly overtaking the league as the “base” defense due to the speed offenses are putting on the field. That means, while the depth chart lists Chase Hansen as the Sam linebacker for the Saints next season, he may only see the field a third of the time.
The numbers back this up. In 2020, Davis played 98 percent of snaps for the Saints, while Anzalone played 50 percent and Alexander played 33 percent. The numbers drop from player to player, which is a good sign for those hand-wringing over the lack of depth at each position.
For those worried about teams abusing the lack of size, the four losses the Saints suffered last year came against the four teams who ran the ball the least. Due to the aggressiveness of Gardner-Johnson and Jenkins, running the ball actually plays into the Saints hands, as those two love to play defense downhill.
The solution for the Saints defensively, in reality, is to let the chips fall where they may. 4-3 and 3-4 defenses are still part of the gameplan, but they’re mostly used situationally at this point. Werner can likely fill the role Anzalone and Klein did, while Hansen will be used sparingly.
Ultimately, the goal has to be to trust Gardner-Johnson and Jenkins when they’re on the field. These two play very versatile roles for the Saints, and we’ll likely see those roles increase as they break in a rookie linebacker who will have some growing pains. In the meantime, the Saints have one of the best linebackers in the game in Davis. Being able to lean on him is a luxury, and the Saints will have to do so early in the season.