Until last season, the defensive side of the football had been the Achilles heel for the New Orleans Saints franchise in recent years, specifically from 2014 through 2016; when the Black and Gold fielded one of the worst defenses in the NFL's entire history during that span.
But in 2017, the Saints defense made huge strides; sparked by what New Orleans Advocate beat writer Joel A. Erickson says was a young, big-play secondary and led by defensive coordinator Dennis Allen's aggressive, attacking scheme, while also getting a huge impact from defensive end Cameron Jordan's All-Pro season in which the Saints defensive unit put quarterbacks on their backs over and over again.
As a result, the Saints went from being ranked as the 31st ranked (the League's 2nd worst) overall defense in scoring (yielding 28.4 points per game) to 10th overall (20.4 points per game); an improvement of 21 spots overall and basically a whole touchdown and 2-point conversion less (8 points) than what they gave up in 2016.
But nevertheless: there's still ALWAYS "more room for improvement".
Funny thing is however, that in the past several months of the 2018 off-season — which ends in less than 2 weeks from now when the team reports for 2018 Training Camp — the Saints defensive unit already has seen some improvements from where it ended last season.
This morning, here's our real quick take at Saints News Network at just what those improvements are.
We begin first with the most obvious one.....
#1. SPEED AT LINEBACKER
As improved as they were overall last season, the Saints linebacker corps was still open to receiving an even further upgrade this past off-season; which is exactly why the team chose to sign former New York Jets linebacker Demario Davis; the Brandon, Mississippi native (just outside of Jackson) whom Saints brass targeted immediately in the first wave of 2018 NFL Free Agency a few short months ago.
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.
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 with the SPEED NEEDED to play off the ball and defend the run sideline-to-sideline, and cover TE's and RB's coming out of the backfield.
With the addition of Davis along with the return of 2nd year player Alex Anzalone — who was lost for the season last year after sustaining a severe right shoulder injury during the first quarter of the Week #5 contest against the Miami Dolphins on October 1st, in London, England but who notably is one of the fastest defenders on the field — it's very likely that the Saints LB corps will be as fast (and even more improved) as it has been in some time.
#2. MORE IMPROVED PASS RUSH ON THE SIDE OPPOSITE OF CAM JORDAN
Despite the phenomenal season enjoyed by Cam Jordan last season, the Saints pass rush on the side opposite of him has always been a source of contention for the team's defensive coaching staff.
Last season, the team thought they had finally found the solution for that long-time issue with 2017 free agent signee (and former Arizona Cardinals) defensive end Alex Okafor; who was well on the way to becoming a sound investment for the Saints with his 43 tackles and 4.5 sacks until he ruptured his Achilles tendon during the November 19th (Week #11) contest at home in the Superdome vs. the Washington Redskins.
Though most Sports Medicine doctors give that 11 month-to-a year prognosis for full recovery, Okafor says that Saints team doctors gave him an approximated recovery time of 8 to 10 months, a timetable that could put him in the starting line-up when the regular season starts at home at the Superdome against the visiting Tampa Bay Buccaneers on September 9th.
But the Saints have always hoped to have an elite pass rusher on the opposite side of Jordan, and the team believes that they might now have that player in 2018 top draft pick Marcus Davenport; whose biggest critics believe that the Saints organization gave up too much for (surrendering their #1 pick in next year's 2019 NFL Draft to the Green Bay Packers, in order to move up and select him at #14 overall) given the lingering questions that continue to be asked with regard to his being able to adapt to the NFL level.
"We felt like he had a unique skill set that allowed him to be able to rush the passer," Allen said to reporters last month at the team's Mini-Camp. "He has size, length, speed, so all the qualities that you’re looking for, he has. It’s getting him out here, getting him accustomed to what we’re going to ask him to do and helping him to develop."
While the proverbial jury will probably remain out of the room on whether Davenport is actually an elite-caliber talent at the position or not until sometime later on during the season; all indications so far (based on his impressive showing at Mini-Camp with limited snaps) are that he actually is going to be an elite-caliber pass rusher — meaning that the defensive pass rush on that side has very likely already seen some more improvement before playing a single game yet.
#3. EVEN MORE DEPTH IN THE SECONDARY
Just a couple of years ago (2014 through 2016), the Saints pass defense was so GODAWFUL that defensive coordinator Dennis Allen's (who took over from the fired Rob Ryan) secondary was actually flirting with breaking or setting long-time League records for being terrible.
However since that time, the team has added some elite-caliber players in the unit's secondary; drafting "lockdown" cornerback Marshon Lattimore and the safety tandem of Vonn Bell and Marcus Williams in 2016 and 2017. Additionally, the secondary was able to benefit even more from the emergence of now 3rd year veteran Ken Crawley; who was actually a very solid "cover corner" in his own right last season.
But the upgrade apparently was far from being complete; as evidenced by the team's recent additions to even further improve their impressive collection of young talent in time for the upcoming 2018 NFL season; when the team went out and signed former Philadelphia Eagles nickel back / slot CB Patrick Robinson (an original 1st-round pick by the Saints in 2010 who spent the first five years of his career in New Orleans) and the very reliable veteran Kurt Coleman, a play-making safety with the Carolina Panthers for the past few years.
The addition specifically of Robinson — who will turn 31 in September — should potentially give the team the most talent at the CB position that they've enjoyed in quite some time. He had the best season of his career with Philadelphia last season while playing 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" (finally) over the course of the past few seasons to become one of the NFL's premier CB's at covering the 'slot' position.