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Saints 2022 Training Camp Preview: Linebacker

As New Orleans goes into their second day of mini-camp, here's an early training camp preview of the linebacker position.
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The New Orleans Saints have had a great history of standout linebackers. Through the mid-1980s and early 1990s, the Dome Patrol foursome of Rickey Jackson, Pat Swilling, Sam Mills, and Vaughan Johnson were instrumental in making the Saints perennial playoff contenders for the first time in franchise history.

That group is recognized as perhaps the best linebacking corps in NFL history. All four are in the franchise Hall of Fame, with Jackson and Mills enshrined in the NFL Hall of Fame.

Renaldo Turnbull, Winfred Tubbs, Mark Fields, Keith Mitchell, and Darrin Smith all made their marks for strong defenses through the mid-1990s and early 2000s. Jonathan Vilma, Scott Shanle, Scott Fujita, and Jo-Lonn Dunbar were an underrated group instrumental in helping New Orleans to a Super Bowl XLIV championship.

Continuing the tradition of stars at the linebacker position, the Saints have had a versatile and athletic unit for the last five years. Demario Davis and Kwon Alexander have formed one of the league's better linebacker duos over the previous two seasons. Joining them last year was promising rookie Pete Werner, helping the team rank among the league's elite defenses.

Davis and Werner are back, but Alexander remains an unsigned free agent. Without him, there are some questions about depth in the unit. The Saints did add some other pieces at the position this offseason. Let's take a look at how they might fit in today's training camp position preview.

LINEBACKER

Currently on the Roster

(* = Rookie)

  • Demario Davis
  • Pete Werner
  • Kaden Elliss
  • D'Marco Jackson*
  • Eric Wilson
  • Zack Baun
  • Andrew Dowell
  • Nephi Sewell*
  • Isaiah Pryor*

The Star

New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis (56) drives Green Bay running back Aaron Jones (33) out of bounds. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis (56) drives Green Bay running back Aaron Jones (33) out of bounds. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Davis is coming off another spectacular campaign, leading the squad with 105 total tackles, which included a team-high 70 solo stops and 13 tackles for loss.

The 33-year-old has led the Saints in tackles in all four of his years with the team, turning in five straight seasons of over 100 tackles and nine consecutive seasons of at least 90 stops.

Outside of QB Drew Brees in 2006, Davis is the best free-agent acquisition in franchise history. He’s the leader of the team, both vocally and by example, and has become a pillar of the community. Davis has missed just one of 69 games with New Orleans and played in 99% of the defensive snaps over his last two seasons.

A force against the run and as a pass defender, Davis is one of the NFL's best all-around defensive players. He’s recorded 16 sacks in four years as a Saint, including 3 sacks and 10 pressures in 2021.

Davis is also outstanding in coverage, able to lock down opposing tight ends, backs, and even wideouts all over the field. He broke up seven throws and allowed less than 68% completion rate when targeted last season.

Davis is the key to one of the league's most formidable run defenses. At 6’2” and 248-Lbs., he’s strong enough to take on blockers head-on in the gap and has elite speed to track down ball carriers in open space. His terrific play recognition allows him to anticipate what an offense does and fire through open gaps to make big plays.

Davis has tremendous versatility, allowing him to play any of the linebacker spots and stay on the field in all situations. At 33, he’s the team’s second oldest player and its oldest starter. Yet, he continues to stave off Father Time to be the key to this elite defense.

Can Pete Werner develop into a star in his second season?

New Orleans Saints linebacker Pete Werner (20) tackles Seattle Seahawks running back Alex Collins (41). Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans Saints linebacker Pete Werner (20) tackles Seattle Seahawks running back Alex Collins (41). Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The Saints brought in Werner as a second-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. He was the seventh linebacker chosen, but was second only to Micah Parsons of the Cowboys in terms of rookie impact at the position.

After not seeing any defensive action in the first two games, Werner appeared 14 of the final 15 contests, starting eight. He gained valuable experience when Kwon Alexander was sidelined by injury early in the year.

Werner recorded 62 tackles as a rookie, sixth on the team but second only to Davis among linebackers. He had three games with at least 10 tackles, including 13 stops in Week 5 at Washington, a season-high for the entire team. The valuable reps Werner got with Alexander out of the lineup allowed him to develop a strong chemistry with Demario Davis.

At 6’3” and 242-Lbs., Werner has the athleticism and versatility to play any of the linebacker positions. He possesses a good natural feel for the game and is rarely caught out of position. Not asked to rush the passer often, this is one of the few areas of his game that needs a lot of improvement.

Werner excels in open space. He has a fluid change-of-direction to stay with backs and tight ends in coverage and the speed to run down ball carriers to the edge. Werner is also a strong run defender with good play anticipation and ability to work through blocks.

Unless Alexander is re-signed, even more will be expected from Werner in his second year. He and Davis have the potential to be an outstanding duo for a Saints defense that often employs just two linebackers.

Can Kaden Elliss secure the third linebacker spot?

New England Patriots running back Brandon Bolden (25) catches a pass against New Orleans Saints linebacker Kaden Elliss (55). Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY

New England Patriots running back Brandon Bolden (25) catches a pass against New Orleans Saints linebacker Kaden Elliss (55). Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY

A seventh-round selection in the 2019 NFL Draft by the Saints out of Idaho, Elliss has been a valuable special teams member for the last two years after missing most of his rookie season. In 2021, he saw the most extensive defensive action of his career, playing in 191 defensive snaps.

Elliss recorded the first sack of his career last season, adding four pressures and a tackle for loss. A lean defender at 6’3” and 238-Lbs., he possesses surprising strength at the point of attack. Elliss is a strong run defender and effective blitzer, but struggles in space with a stiff change-of-direction.

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Valued on special teams, Elliss was usually taken out of the defensive lineup in obvious passing situations. He’s a smart defender in zones, but can be a liability when matched up in man. His most effective spots are in the middle or on the strong side, and he moves decisively through the tackle box.

Elliss, who turns 27 in July, is the second-most tenured linebacker on the team behind Davis. He’ll have the inside track for the third linebacker spot, but must hold off challenges from two newcomers.

The Rookie Newcomer

New Orleans Saints linebacker D'Marco Jackson (52) during rookie camp at the Saints Training Facility. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans Saints linebacker D'Marco Jackson (52) during rookie camp at the Saints Training Facility. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Appalachian State LB D'Marco Jackson was selected in the fifth-round of this springs draft. Jackson was a tackling machine in college, peaking with 119 stops, including 20 for loss and six sacks, during his senior year.

A heat-seeking missile on the field, Jackson is an intense and explosive playmaker. He’s a bit undersized at 6’1” and 233-Lbs., but will most likely be used on the weak side early in his career. Jackson is an aggressive run defender who uses quickness to overcome his size while shedding blocks. He explodes through gaps and has an impressive burst into opposing backfields.

Jackson has terrific coverage skills. Over his final two collegiate seasons, he intercepted three passes and broke up 13 throws. His speed allows him to stay with backs and tight ends all over the field, and he has the IQ and reaction skills to be effective in zones.

Jackson will have to shine on special teams, but has the athleticism and natural abilities to develop rapidly as a linebacker. Expect him to be in the mix for defensive snaps early on, with the potential be a Day 3 draft steal.

Veteran Addition

Former Minnesota Vikings LB Eric Wilson. Credit: USA TODAY 

Former Minnesota Vikings LB Eric Wilson. Credit: USA TODAY 

After the draft, New Orleans signed five-year veteran free-agent Eric Wilson. The 27-year-old Wilson played last year for Philadelphia and Houston, accumulating 46 tackles over 14 games as a reserve. He played the first four years of his career with the Minnesota Vikings.

Wilson has missed just three games in his career, playing mostly as a reserve and special teams contributor. He finally got his chance to shine in 2020, leading the Vikings with 122 tackles. Eight of those stops were for loss in a year where he also had 3 sacks, 10 pressures, forced 2 fumbles, intercepted 3 passes, and broke up 8 others.

The 6’1” and 230-Lb. Wilson plays with great instincts against the run and in zone coverage. He isn't particularly strong in man coverage, but is adequate on either the strong or weak sides.

Wilson brings starting experience to a New Orleans linebacking corps lacking just that behind Davis and Werner. It should be a tight battle between him, Jackson, and Elliss for the third linebacker spot.

The Longshots

New Orleans Saints linebacker Zack Baun (53) on the kickoff return team against the Minnesota Vikings. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans Saints linebacker Zack Baun (53) on the kickoff return team against the Minnesota Vikings. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Andrew Dowell enters his third year with the Saints. The former undrafted player from Michigan State was added at the end of the 2019 season after being released off the Cowboys practice squad. After one game on special teams for New Orleans in 2020, Dowell played 20 snaps on defense and 340 more on special teams for the Saints last season. Dowell is undersized at 6’1” and 225-Lbs., but has good instincts as a middle linebacker and in zones.

Zack Baun, a third-round choice in 2020, has never been a fit in the Saints defensive scheme. He has good pass rushing skills and is adequate against the run, but at 226-Lbs. is too small for the defensive front. As a linebacker, he often looks lost in space and is a liability in coverage. However, Baun is one of the team’s strongest special teams players and adds depth along the edge.

Undrafted rookies Nephi Sewell and Isaiah Pryor have uphill battles for roster spots, but could impress with practice reps. Both players are converted safeties who excel in zone coverages and have good instincts near the line of scrimmage. 

New Orleans also brought in veteran LB Joe Schobert in for a workout with the team on Tuesday.  The Saints are set with Davis and Werner as starters, but depth is a small concern. Expect serious competition for the third spot between Jackson, Wilson, Elliss, and perhaps another veteran through mini-camp and training camp. 

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