An underrated aspect of the New Orleans Saints Super Bowl XLIV championship team in 2009 was the play of its linebacking corps.
Pro Bowl LB Jonathan Vilma was the headliner of the group, intercepting 3 passes and leading the team in tackles.
Vilma had outstanding support from Scott Shanle and Scott Fujita, with depth being provided by Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Marvin Mitchell.
This underrated unit created havoc at the second level of a New Orleans defense that finished second in the league with 39 turnovers.
As those Saints linebackers aged, the play of the unit slipped. Free-agent acquisitions and draft choices at the position failed to provide adequate replacements for the unit.
Through the middle part of the decade, the New Orleans linebackers were athletically overmatched and consistently out of position.
They were perhaps the team's biggest weakness on a defense that ranked at the bottom of the league from 2012 to 2016.
The drafting of Alex Anzalone and the free-agent signing of A.J. Klein in 2017 solidified the linebacking corps.
During the 2018 offseason, the Saints signed a little-known linebacker named Demario Davis in free agency, attempting to further upgrade the defense's athleticism.
Davis had been a third-round pick of the New York Jets in the 2012 NFL Draft out of Arkansas State. In five years with the Jets and one with the Cleveland Browns, Davis had 38 tackles for loss, 13.5 sacks, and five seasons with at least 90 tackles.
Davis helped instantly transform the New Orleans defense into a disruptive unit able to win games without relying on their historically productive offense.
Since his arrival in 2018, the Saints have given up less than 22 points per game and have owned a top-five rushing defense in each of the last three years.
DEMARIO DAVIS - 2018
Davis led New Orleans with 110 tackles in 2018, including 11 stops for loss. He equaled a career-high with 5 sacks, adding 16 QB pressures and forcing two fumbles.
The Saints allowed 22.1 points per game in 2018, surrendered 20 points or less 11 times.
They finished second in the league against the run, allowing just 80 yards per game and 3.6 yards per carry.
Davis provided an upgrade for the team in pass coverage, breaking up five passes and adding an interception in the playoffs.
DEMARIO DAVIS - 2019
Davis had the most brilliant campaign of his underrated career in 2019, earning a long-overdue Pro Bowl berth and 1st team All-Pro honors.
His 111 tackles led the team again, and his 11 tackles for loss were second on the squad. He had an interception and was third on the team with 12 passes broken up. Davis was also disruptive as a pass rusher, contributing 4 sacks and 15 pressures.
New Orleans gave up 21.3 points per game, which included seven contests of 17 points or fewer. The Saints were nearly impenetrable against the run again, ranking fourth and giving up less than 92 yards per game on the ground.
DEMARIO DAVIS - 2020
Davis would lead the Saints in tackles again last year, this time gathering 119 stops and 10 tackles for loss. He added 4 sacks, a career-high 16 pressures, and broke up 5 throws.
Davis was the catalyst of a defense that ranked fourth in total yardage and was among the league's most disruptive units.
New Orleans surrendered just 21.1 points per outing, 5th lowest in the league. They surrendered less than 20 points during a five-game stretch at mid-season to take control of the NFC South.
The Saints forced 26 turnovers, including a league-best 18 interceptions. Their pass defense ranked 5th, their best ranking in that category since 2013.
They continued to be formidable against the run, allowing less than 94 yards per contest and just 3.9 yards per carry.
Now entering his tenth NFL season, Davis has been a model of consistency and reliability throughout his career.
He has started 70 straight games, including playoffs, and has never missed a game in his career, appearing in 85 consecutive contests.
With the retirement of QB Drew Brees, Davis is now the unquestioned leader on the field and in the locker room for the Saints. He has also been a leader in the Gulf Coast community, spearheading several charitable causes.
Davis' leadership on the field will be instrumental for continued defensive success in 2021. The team released athletic linebacker, Kwon Alexander, this offseason and lost Alex Anzalone in free agency.
Replacing them will be 2021 second-round choice Pete Werner, 2020 3rd round pick Zack Baun, and 2019 7th round selection Kaden Elliss.
Davis' mentorship will be crucial to the rapid development of Werner, Baun, and Elliss.
More important than his leadership, the Saints will rely on continued elite play from the 32-year-old Davis. He is one of the league's most underrated players; a sideline-to-sideline defender that makes a major impact against both the run and pass.
Demario Davis upgraded the New Orleans defense into an elite squad from the moment of his arrival in 2018. His presence will again ensure that this defense will be capable of being the difference in games in 2021.
Follow Bob Rose on Facebook or on Twitter @bobbyr2613.
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