Free agency was going to be tricky for the Saints. For those unfamiliar with the team, it appeared as if the Saints had no money to work with. However, after cutting guard Jahri Evans, wide receiver Marques Colston, and linebackers David Hawthorne and Ramon Humber, they had a respectable amount of cash to work with. It was possible that the Saints would have about $30 million in cap space to work with; unfortunately, they were not able to reach an agreement on an extension with Drew Brees. It was reported that James Laurinaitis would be visiting the Saints; he would be a potential target for the Saints in free agency.
After several hours of free agency, there were still several notable defensive players available. Some Saints fans speculated the team would target nose tackle Damon Harrison previously of the Jets. Ultimately, the team didn’t pursue Harrison. It seemed as if the Saints wouldn’t sign anyone on the first day of free agency when the news came out that Coby Fleener, a tight end, was signed by the Saints. The contract was worth $36 million over five years. Many fans including myself were shocked and disappointed. The Saints had spent a large portion of their limited cap space on a tight end; it can be said that the Saints overpaid for Fleener. At the time, it seemed crazy that the Saints ignored their defensive needs to get Drew another toy.
On Wednesday, March 16th, the Saints signed linebacker James Laurinaitis. In his seven seasons with the St. Louis (now Los Angeles) Rams, he amassed 853 tackles, 16.5 sacks, and 10 interceptions. He’s known for being tough as nails as he didn’t miss a single start with the Rams.
After watching Laurinaitis’ film, I wasn’t overwhelmed. It was evident that he had a nose for the ball; he was involved in just about every play. Coverage is certainly not one of his strengths. The Saints needed (and they still need) a linebacker who was solid in coverage. Linebackers were routinely beaten by opposing tight ends, receivers, and running backs last season.
The importance of the Laurinaitis signing is derived from the options he’ll give the Saints defense. First off, he should improve the communication of the defense. Rookie linebacker Stephone Anthony was given the responsibility of communicating the plays and lining up the defense in 2015. That’s a lot for any rookie to deal with. Anthony played well last season (112 tackles, 1 sack, and 1 interception). His shortcomings came in getting guys lined up. It wasn’t uncommon to see him lining up the defensive line just before the snap, and they were frequently shifting a second too late. James Laurinaitis is a middle linebacker; Anthony will move from middle linebacker to strong-side (SAM) linebacker.
Stephone Anthony is incredibly athletic. He possesses some great speed, and there were times last year when he wasn’t able to utilize his athleticism to its greatest extent. By moving to the strong-side, Anthony will be able to show off his athleticism and make more plays. He won’t have to worry about the rest of the defense; his only worry this season will be to make plays. Anthony should be valuable as a blitzer.
Hau’oli Kikaha, a linebacker last season, will move to defensive end, according to head coach Sean Payton. In his fourth season at Washington, Kikaha was able to tally 19 sacks. That’s right, 19! The Saints had Kikaha play strong-side linebacker last season. In his first six games, Kikaha managed to sack the opposing quarterback four times. Kikaha had considerable success under ex-defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. Unfortunately, Kikaha went without another sack for the duration of the season. There is no doubt that an ankle injury sustained in the game against the Giants slowed him down. I’d also contribute his decline to his new role in Dennis Allen’s defense. He was asked to play more of a traditional linebacker role, and that included dropping into coverage. Kikaha had significant struggles in coverage.
With Kikaha moving to defensive end, he will be able to do more of what he is good at: getting after the passer. If he were to play at the weight he played at last season (246 lbs), he would have some issues in the trenches against the larger offensive linemen. I would expect Kikaha to come into camp weighing about 260 lbs. Last season, Kikaha played at defensive end on third downs periodically. In the “light” package, he didn’t seem to have too many problems against the offensive tackles.
The Saints defensive line should look much better next season. At the moment, Cameron Jordan and Hau’oli Kikaha would be the starting defensive ends. The three-technique (3-tech) defensive tackle position will be manned by Sheldon Rankins and Nick Fairley. Nose tackle (1-tech) will consist of a rotation between John Jenkins and Tyeler Davison at the moment.
All in all, the James Laurinaitis signing will give the Saints something they didn’t have last year: the ability to move guys into positions where they can succeed. Sophomores Stephone Anthony and Hau’oli Kikaha should see greater success in their new roles. Ultimately, James Laurinitis is the key to success for the Saints defense.