Da Boot Sports!
Article courtesy of Crescent City Sports
By: Les East
The New Orleans Saints are beginning their most significant transition in 15 years.
Drew Brees has retired and a dozen other key players from last year’s team are gone for a variety of reasons.
As the start of the 2021 training camp looms in late July, the four-time defending NFC South champion Saints are still one of the more talented teams in the NFL. Sean Payton is still one of the longest-tenured and most-successful coaches in the league.
But things are changing as New Orleans ventures into the post-Brees era.
Crescent City Sports takes a comprehensive look at this transition in this series as a build-up to the start of training camp.
Demario Davis is clearly the New Orleans Saints’ best linebacker.
He clearly is one of the leaders of the defense and the team as a whole.
But the clarity regarding the Saints linebacking corps essentially begins and ends with him.
The other two starters from last season – Kwon Alexander and Alex Anzalone – are no longer on the roster. Anzalone signed with Detroit as a free agent and Alexander is still on the market while rehabbing from a torn Achilles that prematurely ended his only season in New Orleans.
Davis, 32, is entering his 10th NFL season and has led the Saints with an increasing number of tackles singe coming to New Orleans as a free agent – 106 in 2018, 108 in 2019 and 119 in 2020.
Davis said he continues to work at “finding new, innovative ways to take my game to the next level.”
He said that this season he has adopted an “evolved” Mediterranean diet, balancing meat and plant-based cuisine.
“It’s like I build, and I detox,” Davis said. “That was quite a transition in my diet that I think is making a huge difference. I’ve tapped into reading my sleep a little bit different. When you get to this point in your career, it’s a lot of little things.
“Continue to sharpen things that I’ve been doing, adding the little things that allow me to get one percent better, two percent better. I’ve been reading a lot of books, too, that have unlocked a lot of things mentally.”
The Saints are going to need far greater than one or two percent improvement from their younger linebackers if they’re going to excel on defense this season.
Zack Baun, a third-round draft choice in 2020, and rookie second-round draft choice Pete Werner appear to be the top candidates to play the most alongside Davis, who rarely leaves the field. But their prospects are based more on potential that an NFL track record.
The Saints, like many NFL teams, are playing nickel or dime schemes more frequently than they are their base defense, meaning they mostly use fewer than three linebackers at a time.
“Obviously with Demario, we feel great about him and his ability to play,” defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said. “We do play a lot of two-linebacker sets, so the thing I’m excited about is that when we get to training camp we’re going to let those young guys get out there and let them compete.
“May the best man win. I don’t think we’ve pigeonholed anybody into any specific spots necessarily. We’re really just trying to evaluate guys and certainly that will come once we get into training camp, but it will be a nice little battle.”
Baun was an edge rusher during his senior season at Wisconsin before the Saints moved him to the SAM spot as a rookie. The absence of off-season, on-field work last year because of COVID-19 and a hamstring injury in training camp sidelined him for several days and made the transition especially challenging.
Still, Baun played in 15 games, starting three, and made 12 tackles on defense while becoming a special-teams regular.
“I’d say the difference between this year and last year is I’m just way more comfortable,” Baun said during the Saints minicamp last month. “(I’m) comfortable with the playbook, I know everybody. I know all the coaches. I know I’m just coming into this season way more comfortable and way more confident.”
The Saints have moved Baun to WILL this season, which should provide an opportunity to play significantly more than the 82 defensive snaps he played last season.
“Certainly there were some things that he was able to do last year that gave us confidence he was ready to take the next step,” Allen said of Baun. “We all knew there was going to be a development (curve) from him in terms of being an off the ball linebacker and last year we kind of played him at Sam and Mike off the ball.
“That development was slowed and once you get in to the regular season it’s hard to find all those reps to continue develop guys.”
Werner, who demonstrated an ability to rush the passer, defend the run and play in pass coverage at Ohio State, has an opportunity to carve out a niche as a rookie because of that versatility.
“I kind of have that versatility piece where I can play a SAM and I can be inside the box,” Werner said after being drafted. “I can be outside in space.
“You talk about a guy that can fit in A or B gap, as well as lockdown a tight-end or fit well with the zone. I think that is me.”
Two years ago, seventh-round draft choice Kaden Elliss of Idaho exceeded expectations in training camp before suffering a season-ending knee injury.
The Saints, who did not re-sign special teams leader and versatile backup linebacker Craig Robertson, have several unproven linebackers competing for roster spots – Chase Hansen, Andrew Dowell, Wynton McManis, Quentin Poling, Sutton Smith, Shaq Smith and Marcus Willoughby.
“We feel like we’ve got added depth there,” head coach Sean Payton said.