After very disappointing back-to-back performances by their League-worst defense in the 2014 and 2015 seasons that made them the butt of jokes across the NFL; the New Orleans Saints have spent the past 2 off-seasons rebuilding and upgrading that side of the ball via Free Agency and the Draft, with some rather notable success.
New Orleans ranked 10th in points allowed last season (20.4). That was a "jump up" of 21 total spots from the year before in 2016, when they were ranked 31st overall and gave up (28.4) points per game — a decrease of 8 points per game.
As a result: the Saints improved from a (7-9) record in 2016 to an (11-5) record last year and qualified for the NFL Playoffs for the first time in 4 years, while winning the NFC South Division Championship.
In 2017, the Saints defense on occasion was dominant, often opportunistic, and always if nothing else, capable of "keeping things just close enough" to give their offense an opportunity to put the game away and earn the victory.
However, the Saints organization knows that their defense still has a few holes in it; and yesterday on Day #1 of 2018 NFL Free Agency, they made what appears to be a very conscious effort to "finish what they started".
In two separate signings a few hours apart, the Saints signed former Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Patrick Robinson and former New York Jets middle / strongside linebacker Demario Davis.
According to ESPN, Robinson's deal was reportedly for 4 years for $20 million ($10 million guaranteed), while Davis's is expected to be three years for $24 million ($18 million guaranteed). The two moves yesterday came right on the heels of QB Drew Brees signing a two-year, $50 million contract to finish his brilliant NFL career in New Orleans with the hope of winning another Super Bowl before he retires.
The additions of Robinson, the #6-rated CB in this year's 2018 Free Agency class, and Davis — the #1 rated inside linebacker in the 2018 Free Agency class according to Pro Football Focus — should help Brees and the Saints get closer to that goal.
Robinson of course as Saints fans know, was originally a 2010 NFL Draft first-round draft pick (#32 overall) by New Orleans eight years ago, but he failed (at that time) to live up to expectations. Once he left, he played three seasons for three different teams, first with the San Diego Chargers and the Indianapolis Colts before eventually moving on to Philadelphia; where he eventually won the Super Bowl earlier last month with the Eagles.
Robinson, who will turn 31 in September, enjoyed the best season of his career with Philadelphia. He played the 'slot' CB position in the Eagles secondary for a majority of 2017 and posted 4 interceptions (tied for a career high); which included a memorable "Pick-6" in the NFC Championship Game against the Minnesota Vikings.
As a direct result: the player that some Saints fans disliked once upon a time because of his early-career struggles, has since "blossomed" over the course of the past few seasons to become one of the NFL's premier CB's at covering the 'slot' position.
The former Florida State University star will not only be the new starter at the 'slot' position, but also likely will serve as a "mentor" for the young Saints CB group (led by superstar #1 CB Marshon Lattimore and #2 CB Ken Crawley), all of whom are in their early to mid 20's.
Meanwhile, it's difficult to not get too completely "hyped up" on Davis, who's signing now gives the Saints what they were sorely lacking: a speedy play-maker at the LB position — considered by most analysts and observers as the Saints' most pressing defensive 'need'.
While the signing of Robinson will provide quality depth and give the Saints defense a potential new starter in the slot, the acquisition of Davis could end up being one of the more underrated signings of the entire 2018 Free Agency class when all is said and done.
Davis played at the "Mike" / middle LB spot for the Jets in 2017 and had a phenomenal season, as he recorded 135 combined tackles and 97 solo tackles, both career highs. He also had 3 passes defended, 5 sacks., 13 TFL's (tackles for loss), 15 QB hits, and 1 fumble recovery.
Demario Davis, who @diannaESPN reports is joining Saints, had a monster 2017 for the Jets: 135 tackles, 13 TFLs, 5 sacks, 15 QB hits, 3 PDs, 1 FR
— Josh Katzenstein (@jkatzenstein) March 14, 2018
Demario Davis is an interesting pickup for N.O. Saints. Had a terrific 2017 season for NY Jets. Athletic Inside LB., who could also play on strong side. Size/speed player who runs the field well, good interior pressure guy-strong in run support. Has bettered his coverage skills.
— Michael Detillier (@MikeDetillier) March 14, 2018
But additionally what he brings is a player with the versatility to play multiple roles (he can play at the "Sam" / strongside spot as well, and played the "Will" / weakside in college at Arkansas State) and perhaps most importantly: a linebacker who can play off the ball and defend the run sideline-to-sideline, and cover TE's and RB's coming out of the backfield.
Veteran LB's A.J. Klein, Manti Te'o and Craig Robertson all played well for the Saints last year but none of them are considered "game-changers" at the position.
They're all solid football players, but none of them bring the capability to affect the outcome of a game almost single-handedly as Davis can (last season's rookie and now-2nd year LB Alex Anzalone could still be one potentially, but that's yet to be determined since he missed most of the season with an injury).
One thing for Saints fans to keep in mind going forward: New Orleans blitzed heavily on 3rd downs last year; so 'Who Dats' can also probably expect to see a lot of Davis coming off the outside edge as a designated pass-rusher in certain situations, as well.
In all, Day #1 for the Saints in 2018 Free Agency would seem to have been a success in the eyes of most observers, in spite of the grumblings from some Saints fans over the team's other signing from yesterday: former Houston Texans 3rd string QB Tom Savage, who's expected to compete against current Saints 3rd string QB Taysom Hill to be the #2 QB behind Brees when Training Camp opens in late July.
So what will Day #2 have in store?