Through the middle part of the last decade, the New Orleans Saints had perhaps the NFL's worst defense. Smart drafting and free-agent signings turned the unit around, helping the team to four consecutive NFC South titles.
The normally proficient New Orleans offense stalled at times in 2020 because of a rash of injuries throughout the unit. A Saints defense that was among the league's elite in 2020 carried the team at times.
New Orleans led the league in interceptions and held top-five rankings in total yardage, points allowed, rush defense, pass defense, sacks, and forced turnovers in 2020.
Quarterback Drew Brees retired this offseason, putting all-national eyes on the competition between Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill for who takes over starting duties.
The Saints kick off their 2021 training camp in just two weeks with several key questions on the defensive side of the ball as well.
Offseason personnel losses hit the depth of the unit hard, and the Saints will have as many as six new defensive starters to open the season.
Yesterday I gave my early predictions on who fills out the depth chart for the Saints on the offensive side of the ball.
Here is my first prediction on who takes the field for the Saints defense to start 2021.
* = Rookie
DEFENSIVE END/EDGE (5)
- Cameron Jordan
- Marcus Davenport
- Carl Granderson
- Payton Turner*
- Tanoh Kpassagnon
Franchise icon Cam Jordan returns, looking to bounce back from a disappointing year by his lofty standards.
The team is still waiting on a breakout season from Davenport, the Number 14 selection in the 2018 NFL Draft. They picked up Davenport's fifth-year option, hoping that he will finally capitalize on his first-round promise.
Third-year DE Carl Granderson looks destined for a breakout campaign, similar to what the now-departed Trey Hendrickson did in 2020. The 27-year-old Kpassagnon was signed in free agency to offset Hendrickson's loss. He’ll be pushed by Noah Spence, who was a promising pass rusher early in his career before being beset by injuries the last few seasons.
New Orleans used their No. 28 overall draft selection in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft on defensive end Payton Turner from the University of Houston. Turner is an athletic mismatch on the edge who got better in each of his collegiate seasons.
DEFENSIVE TACKLE (5)
- Shy Tuttle
- Malcolm Roach
- Jalen Dalton
- Lorenzo Neal Jr.*
- Josiah Bronson*
Suspended List, 6 Games - David Onyemata
Onyemata's six-game suspension to start the year is a crippling blow to a position that already lost Malcom Brown and Sheldon Rankins this offseason. I expect the team to sign a veteran free-agent tackle to bolster depth and experience.
Tuttle was an immediate contributor as an undrafted rookie in 2019. He’s a disruptive interior presence who would have played a bigger role in 2021 even before Onyemata's suspension.
Roach and Dalton are two more undrafted players that need to step up for an inexperienced unit this season. Roach showed good early potential with the Saints last season, while Dalton comes over from Chicago's practice squad after an up-and-down college career.
The Saints have had great luck with undrafted players at defensive tackle over the last few years. Barring the signing of a veteran free agent, they'll need to strike gold again with Neal or Bronson, two undrafted rookies.
- Demario Davis
- Pete Werner*
- Zack Baun
- Kaden Elliss
- Andrew Dowell
For the record, I still believe that the Saints will re-sign veteran LB Kwon Alexander before the start of the season. The defense was elevated to an elite level when the team paired him with All-Pro Demario Davis after a mid-season trade.
The 32-year-old Davis is one of the league's best defensive players and a leader of this team. He’ll anchor a front seven that usually employs just two linebackers and plays an extra defensive back near the line of scrimmage.
Rookie second-round choice Pete Werner from Ohio State is the early favorite to start alongside Davis. Werner is an instinctive player that can play any linebacker of the positions and has good short-range athleticism.
Second-year LB Zack Baun, a third-round pick in 2020, needs to have a bigger impact on the defense this season. Predominantly a stand-up defensive end in college, Baun converted to linebacker last year in an abbreviated offseason.
Kaden Elliss is the most experienced and versatile of a handful of young players vying for the last few linebacking spots.
Chase Hansen, Shaq Smith, Andrew Dowell, Wynton McManis, Quentin Poling, and Marcus Willoughby should battle for the final spot.
- Marshon Lattimore
- Paulson Adebo*
- Patrick Robinson
- Bryce Thompson*
The release of CB Janoris Jenkins this offseason was the team's biggest personnel loss. Raising even bigger questions at this position was the offseason arrest of Lattimore that will probably result in a league suspension to start the year.
New Orleans drafted Adebo with a third-round choice and he could compete for an immediate starting role. Third-year defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson is one of the league's best in slot coverage and should see more coverage responsibilities this year.
Erratic 12-year veteran Patrick Robinson is the most experienced member of the unit, by far, but is often heavily targeted by opponents with great success.
The Saints could, and should, bring in another veteran corner before the start of the regular season.
Second-year Keith Washington and rookie Bryce Thompson, two undrafted corners, lead the battle for the final spot on the depth chart. With a pending suspension to Lattimore, both could make the opening day roster with a standout preseason.
- Marcus Williams
- Malcolm Jenkins
- Chauncey Gardner-Johnson
- P.J. Williams
- J.T. Gray
The issues at cornerback are somewhat eased by one of the best safety groups in the NFL. Gardner-Johnson is a versatile playmaker all over the field and one of the team’s most valuable defensive players.
P.J. Williams is much better off the ball but is also a former starter at cornerback that could step in if needed. Gray is one of the NFL's finest special teams players but could see more defensive snaps if the safeties are shuffled around.
Marcus Williams is a playmaker at free safety with excellent range and solid instincts. The 33-year-old Jenkins has slipped in man coverage ability, but has outstanding instincts in deep coverage and plays like an extra linebacker at the line of scrimmage.
Personnel losses on the defensive side chipped away the outstanding depth that the Saints had defensively in 2020. The situation is made even worse by the suspension to Onyemata and the possible loss of Lattimore.
Young players are under the microscope to step up and play well right away, but the team still has the playmakers to be among the league's better defenses in 2021.
Follow Bob Rose on Facebook or on Twitter @bobbyr2613.
READ MORE SAINTS NEWS:
- Saints 53-Man Roster Predictions: Offense
- Individual Camp Battles to Watch During Training Camp
- Ted Ginn's Legacy
- Ted Ginn Retires after 14 Seasons
- Saints: Available Free-Agent Defensive Tackles to Address the Onyemata Suspension
- David Onyemata Reveals Testing Positive for Banned Substance
- Saints News: Mercedes-Benz Signage Removed from Superdome