New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton was eyeing up a linebacker as the 3rd round of the 2020 draft began. The Saints traded their 3rd round pick (88th overall), along with a 3rd rounder in the 2021 draft, to the Cleveland Browns to move up to the tenth choice in the 3rd round. With the 74th overall choice, New Orleans selected Zack Baun, a DE/LB out of Wisconsin.
Baun was predominantly a stand-up defensive end with the Badgers. He was an explosive edge rusher who had 12.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss as a senior. Baun also showed outstanding athleticism and range when he dropped into coverage, displaying the type of versatility that the Saints value in their defenders.
Essentially learning a new position and handcuffed by the cancelation of offseason activities and preseason games because of COVID-19 concerns, some questioned how much the rookie would contribute to the Saints in 2020. Today's spotlight looks at those contributions.
Inactive for the season opener against the Buccaneers, Baun would see the first action of his NFL career during a Monday Night road loss to the Raiders in Week 2. He would play just 28 snaps on special teams during weeks 2 and 3, before finally seeing the field defensively for one snap in Week 4 at Detroit.
Baun would see more extensive defensive action in weeks 5 and 7, playing a combined 25 snaps against the Chargers and Panthers. He remained a consistent member of the special teams squads, but would not see a double-digit snap count on the defensive side again until Week 15 against Kansas City. Baun played a season-high 22 defensive snaps during the regular season finale at Carolina, then 19 in a Divisional Round loss to the Buccaneers.
Baun's limited action led to modest statistics as a rookie. He finished with 12 tackles, one for a loss. Coaches would point out his development during the year, which led to more playing time down the stretch. He displayed good strength at the point of attack against the run and got nice push into the backfield as a pass rusher.
Too light to be an every down defensive end at 238-Lbs., Baun's terrific pass rush potential could allow the team to move him to the edge on obvious passing downs. Baun has the athleticism and football IQ to be effective at linebacker as he continues to learn the nuances of the position at the NFL level.
The Saints lost starting linebackers Kwon Alexander and Alex Anzalone this offseason, along with DE Trey Hendrickson. Zack Baun's development will be critical for the continued success of the New Orleans defense in 2021.