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Barry Hirstius

“THE NEW BLOOD”: Saints Defense Getting Younger, But is It Better?

5 and perhaps as many as 7. That's the number of brand new starters that you will likely see on the Saints defense in 2017, all of whom are under or just slightly over the age of 25.

When you add probable starting middle linebacker A.J. Klein and 9-Technique defensive end / edge rusher Alex Okafor -- both of whom the Saints signed in Free Agency this past off-season -- to the equation, the Saints are looking at the likelihood of having up to 7 brand new starters this season alone that were born in the decade of the 1990's, and not the 1980's.

If you throw in last year's rookie starter at safety Vonn Bell, the Saints could have eight (yes, 8) players on this year's defense either under or just over the age 25 mark and who qualify as "Millennials" (born in the 1990's).

It's rather evident that the Saints have injected their defense with some "new blood" --- but the biggest question going forward now becomes: 

Does the Saints defense getting younger actually make them any BETTER?

Photo courtesy of Icon Sportswire

As of this moment, that would seem to be the great debate among analysts and observers covering the team, which includes yours truly.

I'll say this much: they can't possibly be any worse than the defense that we've seen the past 3 seasons; the same defense that has finished either dead last or near the bottom of the League rankings for 3 straight years and 4 out of the last 5.

 

THE "NEW BLOOD"  (Potential new 2017 Saints defensive starters under or just slightly over the age of 25, as of June 28, 2017)

  • Nose tackle / 1-Technique: Tyeler Davison (age 23)
  • Defensive tackle / 3-Technique: Sheldon Rankins (age 23)
  • Left Defensive end / Edge Rusher (9-Technique): Alex Okafor (turned 26 in February)
  • Middle / "Mike" Linebacker: A.J. Klein (age 25)
  • Weakside / "Will" Linebacker: Alex Anzalone (age 22)
  • Free safety: Marcus Williams (age 20)
  • #2 / Outside Boundary Cornerback: Marshon Lattimore (age 21)

 

Now of the players listed right above, I'd say that 5 of them are virtual "locks" at their respective positions as this point to start the 2017 regular season at Minnesota against the Vikings on Monday Night Football: Klein, Okafor, Rankins, Davison, and Williams. 

The other two players -- rookie CB Marshon Lattimore and rookie LB Alex Anzalone -- will likely be a part of a rotation early on, but I personally still expect them both to emerge as the starters at their positions by the time that the season is over in early January.

That's always keeping in mind of course, that injuries and competition in Training Camp could change the equation a bit and perhaps even dramatically so.

Here's a few quick thoughts on each player:

Tyeler Davison: Drafted in 2015, Davison will finally assume the role that he was drafted to play: the 1-Technque defensive tackle, also know as the "nose tackle". But remember: Davison was also drafted because of his versatility, and can play ANY position (end or tackle) along the defensive line.

Sheldon Rankins: The new starter at the 3-Technique /interior pass rush defensive tackle spot now that the career of Nick Fairley is likely finished, due to a heart condition. The Saints are in good hands however, because I don't see any "drop off" from Fairley to Rankins. Rankins is a pure STUD and a future All-Pro, and will  eventually become one of the leaders of this unit.

Photo courtesy of USA TODAY Sports

A.J. Klein: The Saints have swung and missed at finding a permanent starter at the "Mike" linebacker spot in recent years (2015 draft pick Stephone Anthony, 2016 "washed up" Free Agent "bust" James Laurinaitis), but they've hit a home run in my opinion with the 'under-the-radar' signing of Klein. Serving as the back-up to All-Pro Like Kuechly while he was with Carolina, Klein has already shown the speed and coverage abilities that might potentially make him one of the best Saints Free Agent signings of the entire Sean Payton-Drew Brees Era.

Alex Okafor: Benched in Arizona last season, the Saints are hoping that the free agent Okafor can provide the pass rush off of the outside edge that they've visibly lacked for their defense since the departure of former defensive end Junior Galette in the 2015 off-season. The one "wild card" to consider that could knock Okafor out of that starting spot: the possible return to health of 2015 Draft pick Hau'oli Kikaha, who will be attempting a comeback in Training Camp after blowing out the same knee for the 3rd time in his playing career.

Marcus Williams: This kid might be THE STEAL of the 2017 NFL Draft. It's unbelievable to me (at least from my own perspective) that this young man lasted until the 42nd overall pick in the 2nd Round, when he easily should have been a Top 20 pick. Williams is a "ball hawk" and a reputable hard-hitter ---and will transform the entire Saints secondary and give the unit a "swagger" that it hasn't really had since the 2009 Super Bowl season.

Marcus Williams - Ballhawk

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

Marshon Lattimore: The Saints top pick of their 2017 Draft class (#11 overall), Lattimore was drafted to be the #2 / outside boundary CB on the side opposite of #1 CB Delvin Breaux. Lattimore will likely be a part of a rotation at the position that will include Sterling Moore and P.J. Williams, but his elite "lock down" coverage skills should help him take the spot completely over by season's end.

Alex Anzalone: The most underrated of all of the Saints 2017 draft picks, Anzalone is capable of playing ALL 3 LB positions, and will be in right in the the heart of a 3-way battle in Training Camp and Pre-Season to be the starter at "Will" / weakside linebacker; along with vets Danell Ellerbe and Craig Robertson. Given Ellerbe's notable problems with staying healthy, I'd expect Robertson to be named the "official" starter -- with Anzalone given an opportunity because of his obvious talent, to eventually share the starter's role at weakside LB throughout the season.

One word of caution: this is the end of June, and not the end of August

The Saints have yet to even practice in full pads yet, and have simply been playing what is the equivalent of "2-hand touch" with your kids outside in the front yard.

But nevertheless, there isn't any question that the Saints have injected a new infusion of talent and youth to their defensive unit in time for the 2017 NFL season.

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

Whether or nor that will translate into a WINNING result however, is the question that still needs to be answered.

But --- will it be an answer that Saints fans want to hear?

Starting on the night of Monday, September 11th in Minnneapolis, Minnesota, perhaps we'll at least have a bit of a glimpse into what the future holds, for the Saints defense and "The New Blood"..............

Saints News Network Editor / Featured Columnist and Lead Analyst Barry Hirstius is a 50-year old semi-retired journalist and former New Orleans area sports editor and columnist previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints NFL football team. Additionally, he is a frequent guest on a variety of Sports Talk Radio programs that cover the Saints. Barry is also a New Orleans native that dating all the way back to his childhood in the early 1970's, attended games at the old Tulane Stadium and grew up as a long-time Saints fan; following and now covering the team for a span of over 40 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.......

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