The New Orleans Saints have rebuilt their defense over the last three years, making it into one of the better units in the league. Despite the vast improvement in the New Orleans defense over those seasons, the squad has still come up short in some big moments of heartbreaking playoff losses. The Saints defense has been dominant to start training camp, making plays against one of the NFL's best offenses. This unit’s next challenge is to rise to the occasion when a championship berth could be on the line. While the entire squad is responsible for stepping up, here are a few New Orleans defensive players that will be under the hottest spotlight in 2020.
SHELDON RANKINS, DT
Rankins was playing at a dominant Pro Bowl level in 2018, before suffering an Achilles injury in the 1st round of the playoffs. The injury forced him to miss the first month of last season while recovering, and he was shelved again by injury late in the year, missing the last month of games. He had 2 sacks, 8 pressures, and 2 tackles for loss in 2019 after 8 sacks, 25 QB pressures, and 12 tackles for loss the prior season.
Rankins, the 12th overall pick of the 2016 draft, will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year. The 6’2” 305-Lb tackle is a powerful and disruptive inside force for the New Orleans defense that commands but still defeats double-team blocking. The Saints have a deep rotation at DT, but a healthy Rankins elevates this unit to an elite level.
MARCUS DAVENPORT, DE
Davenport has flashed disruptive potential over each of his first two years since the Saints traded three picks to move up and select him with the 14th overall pick of the 2018 draft. He had 6 sacks, 26 QB pressures, and forced 3 fumbles last season and provides a perfect edge compliment to Cameron Jordan. Davenport played in just 50% of the defensive snaps last year and 40% the year before, making his production even more impressive but raising questions about his availability.
The concern over Davenport is not his ability, but his durability. He has had foot injuries in both of his seasons and has missed seven games, including last year's playoff loss, and been slowed in several others. Davenport has good size (6’6” 265-Lbs), excellent strength, and freakish athletic ability that makes him difficult for any offensive line to handle. He must show that he can remain on the field for New Orleans, especially in crucial games, to justify the price that the Saints paid to get him.
ALEX ANZALONE, LB
Another potential star that has not been able to stay healthy is Anzalone, who is entering his fourth year in the league. A 3rd round pick in the 2017 draft, Anzalone has missed 29 of his team's 53 games with shoulder injuries, including the last 15 contests last season. The 6'3” 241-Lb Anzalone is a good run defender, outstanding blitzer, terrific in coverage, and the type of defender that the Saints can leave on the field in every situation.
Anzalone is now entering the last year of his contract. His importance to the Saints defense was clear in 2018, when he appeared in every game and had an interception, 3 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 9 QB pressures, and forced 3 fumbles. Anzalone has had an outstanding start to training camp, but must remain on the field to team with All-Pro Demario Davis and rookie 3rd round pick Zack Baun to give the Saints an effective LB unit.
MARCUS WILLIAMS, S
Unlike the other players listed, Williams has no such injury concern. He has missed just two games since the Saints used a 2nd round pick on him in 2017. Williams, unfortunately, has made some crucial errors in huge games. The Saints play a lot of single-high safety alignments, often leaving Williams on an island deep. He has both outstanding range and good playmaking ability, intercepting 10 passes in his three seasons. His tackling fundamentals must improve, however, an area which has cost his team.
Williams will be a free agent at the conclusion of the year. His hope for a big payday in his next contract will hinge on his ability to make the big plays in those crucial moments instead of having them made against him. And it’s those very types of plays that could make the difference in a second Super Bowl championship for New Orleans.