In 2021, the New Orleans Saints had perhaps their best overall linebacker unit since the dominance of the Dome Patrol in the mid-1980s and early 1990s. All-Pro Demario Davis and athletic veteran Kwon Alexander had already shown great chemistry in their first year together. Added into the mix last year was Pete Werner, a second-round pick from Ohio State.
This trio combined for 6.5 sacks, 19 pressures, 24 tackles for loss, and broke up 11 passes last season. It was a group that was both athletic and versatile for a defense that ranked around the top-five in every major category. New Orleans often employs just two linebackers, but any one of this trio has the ability to stay on the field in every situation.
The 33-year-old Davis returns as the unit’s leader and one of the NFL's best all-around defenders. Werner will also be back and has flashed the abilities of a potential star. Alexander, however, remains an unsigned free agent. He’s visited with a few teams, but could also come back to New Orleans for a third season with the franchise.
Are the Saints making a mistake by not re-signing Kwon Alexander?
A star defender at LSU, Alexander was a fourth-round selection by Tampa Bay in the 2015 NFL Draft. In four seasons with the Buccaneers, he’d record 7 sacks, 17 QB hits, 31 tackles for loss, 6 interceptions, and 22 passes broken up. He had at least 93 tackles in his first three years, including an NFL-high 108 solo stops in 2016.
Alexander signed with San Francisco in 2019, where he’d help the 49ers to an NFC Championship despite being limited to eight games because of injuries. He was traded to New Orleans midway through 2020, forming an instant chemistry with Davis.
Alexander upgraded the athleticism of the entire Saints defense before being lost to an Achilles injury during a Christmas Day blowout of Minnesota. He’d make a remarkable recovery to start the 2021 season opener, but was lost again for four games with a separate injury.
Alexander recovered to have arguably the most disruptive season of his seven-year career. In just 12 games, he'd have career-high totals in sacks (3.5) and QB pressures (8), while adding an interception and 7 tackles for loss. He’d also continue his customary outstanding pass coverage while providing standout run support.
Injuries have hounded Alexander throughout his career. He’s played a full season only once, in 2016, while missing an average of over six contests in his other seven years. Alexander will turn just 28 in August, but some have wondered whether all the injuries have slowed his trademark speed. The Saints used him less in coverage roles than we've seen in the past last season.
There is no doubt that Kwon Alexander adds value to the New Orleans defense. He and Davis have chemistry usually only seen when players have been together for years. Given his injury history, it's possible that the Saints have moved on to other options that started with a move last year.
Is Pete Werner a capable replacement for Kwon Alexander?
After a standout career at Ohio State, the Saints made Werner the sixth linebacker off the board with the 60th overall pick in the 2021 draft. He didn't see any defensive snaps in the opening week and was inactive in Week 2, but Alexander's injury would thrust him into a prominent role.
Werner got his first career start in Week 3, then recorded a combined 23 tackles over the next two contests. He’d split time with Alexander in the team’s two linebacker alignments, playing in 40% of the defensive snaps on the year. Werner finished with 62 total tackles, including four for loss and three games with at least 10 stops.
An athletic player with good size at 6’3” and 242-Lbs., Werner sifts through blocks effectively to the ball carrier and has nice sideline-to-sideline speed in pursuit. He has excellent awareness in zone coverages and the fluid athleticism to match up with backs or tight ends in man coverage.
The 23-year-old Werner didn't provide much of a pass rush, but otherwise has the versatility to play any of the linebacker spots. He jelled nicely with Demario Davis and was even able to take play-calling duties when Davis missed a Week 16 game against Miami.
Without Alexander, the Saints are banking that Werner can go from part-time contributor to a featured role in their defense. His development from potential star to actual stardom is one of the underrated keys to success for the team in 2022.
Why Not Both?
There is little quality depth behind Demario Davis and Pete Werner. Fourth-year LB Kaden Elliss is a good downhill defender, but can be a liability when asked to drop into coverage. Zack Baun, a third-round choice in 2020, is a good special teams contributor but a poor fit in this defensive scheme.
New Orleans signed free-agent LB Eric Wilson this offseason, another sign that they're looking for other options outside of Alexander. Wilson is a one-time starter with Minnesota who led the Vikings in tackles in 2020. He has 4 interceptions, 6 sacks, and 16 tackles for loss over the last three seasons.
The Saints also used a fifth-round draft pick on LB D'Marco Jackson from Appalachian State. Jackson was an athletic playmaker in college with lightning fast pursuit skills and excellent coverage ability. Andrew Dowell and undrafted rookie Nephi Sewell are also in the mix for roster spots.
New Orleans reportedly has nearly $10 million in salary cap space according to OvertheCap.com. it would certainly be possible to bring back Alexander on a reasonable one-year deal. However, we may only see this happen if Jackson doesn't develop quickly or Wilson proves to be a poor fit in the defense.
Kwon Alexander was an excellent piece for an elite New Orleans defense when healthy. The pressure is on Pete Werner to make an equally big impact. If he's up to the challenge, we should expect the Saints to have an equally formidable unit in 2022.
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