The season is now officially over, and the Saints have already started to make roster changes. This Saints team failed to live up to expectations this past season after they finished 7-9. Sean Payton and Drew Brees were successful once again in leading one of the best offenses in the league; the offense finished second in yards per game with 403.8 yards. On the other hand, the defense was absolutely terrible. They finished 31st in yards allowed per game, and they broke the record for passing touchdowns allowed in a season by allowing a whopping 45 touchdown passes. With this being said, the Saints have many needs and could afford to improve on both sides of the ball.
Analysis of the Weak-side Linebacker Position
I believe the Saints’ biggest position of need is weak-side linebacker. This may raise some questions, but when a thorough evaluation of the position is done, most of the questions will have been answered.
The Saints felt weakside linebacker needed to be addressed as they traded for linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and a third round pick in exchange for Kenny Stills, a young receiver with a great deal of promise. Dannell Ellerbe was a solid player with the Ravens, and he was rewarded for his play when he signed a contract worth $35 million over five years with Miami. Unfortunately for Ellerbe, injuries hampered him in Miami.
The Saints traded for Ellerbe with the hope he would solve some of their linebacker issues. He and rookies Stephone Anthony and Hau’oli Kikaha would be the starting linebackers for the Saints. Injuries once again hindered Ellerbe’s season. He made his Saints’ debut in a loss to the Eagles. However, he made his splash one week later against the Falcons on Thursday Night Football. He finished with 12 tackles, one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery. A hip injury he sustained earlier in the season came back to haunt him. He wasn’t able to play on a weekly basis, and when he did play, it was typically in a limited role.
So, who played in place of Ellerbe when he was injured? Oh, just the likes of David Hawthorne, Ramon Humber, and Michael Mauti. No offense to any of these players, they are professional athletes, but they weren’t able to play at a sufficient level. The Saints’ defense was consistently torched by opposing tight ends and running backs. Nick Underhill of The Advocate noted that the Saints’ linebackers gave up 1,093 yards on 119 passing attempts (94 were completed). It is important to remember that this number only accounts for completions the linebackers were directly responsible for.
Dannell Ellerbe is solid in coverage, but his injuries kept him off the field. The Saints recently restructured Ellerbe’s contract to free up some cap space; the new contract freed up $2.7 million in cap space. The Saints also cut linebackers David Hawthorne and Ramon Humber. The Saints need depth at linebacker. There is no way to know how many games Dannell Ellerbe will be able to play next season. The Saints should draft a linebacker in the first round. This will provide some depth in the group of linebackers, and there are two stellar linebackers who could play weak-side linebacker for the Saints next year.
Jaylon Smith is my favorite prospect without a doubt. He played linebacker at Notre Dame. Unfortunately for Smith, he suffered a significant knee injury in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State; he tore his ACL and LCL. Luckily, there was no nerve damage. This injury hurt his draft stock significantly. Some expected Smith to go in the top five; however, the knee injury has caused many to say he’ll drop to the bottom of the first round.
It is understandable that Saints fans would be apprehensive in regards to the Saints taking a chance on someone coming off of a significant injury. The Saints need immediate help on the defensive side of the ball. It was originally believed that Smith would miss all of next season, but it is now believed that he will be able to play part of the 2016 season. The NFL Combine will prove to be significant for Jaylon Smith. He will not participate in any of the drills, but doctors will have the opportunity to look at his knee. The information that will present itself should signal his condition and his chances of being able to return next year. The Saints may have to ask themselves if it is worth the risk and the wait.
Why would the Saints take a risk on Jaylon Smith when they can simply draft a different defensive star? Well, Smith is more than a star. He could definitely be an All-Pro linebacker. Smith possesses rare skills and abilities in linebackers that the NFL is looking for. One thing stands out when watching his film: his speed. Smith has the ability to run sideline to sideline, and he can compete with many tight ends, running backs, and receivers. In a pass-happy NFL, it is imperative that linebackers have the ability to compete with receivers down the field. It just so happens that the Saints need a linebacker to cover tight ends and running backs. Smith’s incredible speed also allows him to crash down on the flats and blow up screen passes. This explosiveness could potentially transform the Saints defense.
Jaylon Smith demonstrates strength in both the run and pass game. It is evident that he is not afraid of contact. It just so happens that the Saints were terrible in both run and pass defense. In my opinion, Smith reads run plays relatively well; it certainly could improve but that is what NFL coaching is for. Smith could afford to put on some more muscle. In the passing game, Smith is a stud. His elite speed allows him to keep up with opposing receivers (tight ends and running backs included). He displays good awareness in zone coverage. He could easily come into the Saints defense and play weak-side linebacker.
One thing that Smith can do that few linebackers can is play all four (three in the Saints’ case) linebacker positions. As of now, the Saints have Hau’oli Kikaha, Stephone Anthony, and Dannell Ellerbe as their starting linebackers. Smith could play at strong-side linebacker, weak-side linebacker, and middle linebacker. Dannell Ellerbe struggled with injuries much of last season, and it is very likely Smith would play the weak-side position. If that were the case, the Saints would have three young starting linebackers; Kikaha, Anthony, and Smith. That is a group that could become one of the best in the NFL. However, if Ellerbe was healthy, Smith would probably start at strong-side linebacker (replacing Kikaha). Smith’s versatility makes him much more valuable.
Smith’s pass rushing skills are not frequently talked about, but make no mistake, this guy can bring the pressure. He is certainly no Von Miller, but Smith is more than capable of getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. At Notre Dame, he was commonly used as a blitzer. In Smith’s film, it was common to see running backs flattened by Smith as he tried to get to the quarterback. His speed allows him to rush around offensive tackles.
The Saints need to take Jaylon Smith is he is available. There are many positions that need to be addressed via the draft, but Smith has the skills to be a generational player. He has tremendous upside, and I believe he could be a solid starter immediately. The addition of Smith could help this defense transform into a playoff-caliber defense.