In 2018, the New Orleans Saints signed a lightly regarded linebacker named Demario Davis away from the New York Jets in free agency. It wasn't a big name ‘‘splashy'' signing, but the Saints were trying to upgrade the athleticism of a linebacking corps that had been a team weakness for several seasons.
Supported by 2017 additions of Alex Anzalone in the draft and A. J. Klein in free agency, Davis supplied exactly the upgrade the team was looking for. He's led the team in tackles for the last three seasons and been one of the league's best at the position.
The New Orleans linebackers, athletically outmatched for years before the arrival of Davis and Anzalone, were instrumental in pass coverage and for the team's 4th ranked run defense. Today's position grade focuses on the second level of the New Orleans defense.
Davis was the most crucial piece of a New Orleans defense that finished 4th in the league, it’s highest ranking in seven years. Finishing with a team-high 119 tackles, he was a playmaker all over the field, whether in deep coverage on a tight end or pressuring opposing quarterbacks. Ten of those tackles were for loss, as Davis possesses elite recognition ability and terrific range. He played in 100% of the team’s defensive snaps in 14 of the 18 Saints ballgames.
Davis was also a vital part of the New Orleans pass rush, contributing 4 sacks, 12 QB hits, and 16 pressures. An unquestioned team leader, Davis' bone-jarring collisions often changed the momentum of a game. Ridiculously overlooked in Pro Bowl voting for the second straight year, the importance of Demario Davis to New Orleans and his standing as one of the NFL's best defensive players at any position cannot be overlooked.
The Saints acquired veteran LB Kwon Alexander from the San Francisco 49ers at mid-season to add even more speed and experience to the unit. Alongside Davis, this duo helped wreck opposing offenses in seven games together. Alexander's performance didn't stand out on the stat sheet, other than two recovered fumbles, but he added excellent sideline-to-sideline speed with outstanding coverage range.
Unfortunately, Alexander suffered a torn Achilles in a Week 16 win over Minnesota, knocking him out of the playoffs and leaving his status for the start of next season in doubt. He is under contract until 2023, but will count $13.2 million against the salary cap this season. The Saints will either restructure his current deal, or release him, hoping to bring him back at a lower rate.
Fourth-year LB Alex Anzalone started the first eight games, then saw a drastic reduction of his defensive snaps after the acquisition of Alexander. The former 3rd round draft choice played in every game for just the second year of his career and finished with 41 tackles, including 3 for loss.
An outstanding run-stopper with good speed, solid instincts, and adequate coverage skills, the defense doesn't miss a beat when Anzalone is on the field. He has a lengthy injury history, however, and is an unrestricted free agent. When healthy, Anzalone is a proven performer on one of the league's best defenses.
Kaden Elliss, a 7th round pick in the 2019 draft, played in just three games as a rookie because of a knee injury. He appeared in 15 games this season, but mostly on special teams. The New Orleans coaches remain high on Elliss, who is limited in space but has a non-stop motor with excellent tackling ability and good coverage and pass rush fundamentals.
Reliable veteran Craig Robertson contributed little defensively this season, but is a special teams leader and valued for his versatility. The 33-Yr old Robertson can play any of the linebacker spots, but will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason. The team may let him walk and look for its younger players to step into a larger role.
One such player expected to step up is Zack Baun, a 3rd round pick in last springs draft. Baun played sparingly on defense this season, seeing over ten snaps in just five of 18 games, while learning the nuances of the NFL linebacker position. He showed flashes as a run defender and edge rusher, but will need to pick up coverage schemes to be effective in this defense.
The 6’2” 238-Lb Baun was predominantly a defensive end in college at Wisconsin, a position he’s too small to be effective at on an every down basis in the NFL. He has the athleticism to be effective in open space once he learns coverage roles, something the Saints will need from him given their potential free agent losses at the position.
New Orleans often employed two linebackers in their base defense, dropping safeties Malcolm Jenkins or Chauncey Gardner-Johnson in the box as an extra defender. That alignment puts extra pressure on linebackers, but an A+ season from Demario Davis and solid performances from Alexander and Anzalone helped the unit excel for one of the NFL's best defenses.