And on the eighth day of free agency the Saints started adding to their defense.
The talent added won’t transform the defense alone. Linebackers Nate Stupar and James Laurinaitis will make the defense better. But the things they bring to the table alone will not suddenly catapult New Orleans to the top of the league in total defense or points allowed.
What they do bring to the team is options. With these additions, the Saints now have the personnel to play different fronts or change their personnel if things stay the same. There’s also the possibility that nothing changes and Laurinaitis and Stupar are here to serve simply as depth.
But options are good to have. There were times last year when the pieces on the defense didn’t seem to blend as hoped in the four-man front employed by New Orleans. The pieces are there now, if the team so chooses, to move some guys around and perhaps get production out of them in other ways than last season.
It’s completely possible that what comes next is far too presumptuous and won’t prove to be true. But my colleague, Joel A. Erickson, and I started running through some possibilities of how the defense could look next season before considering draft picks. By the time we crawled out of the rabbit hole we cooked up several changes that could make sense.
Starting at the top, one of the changes that could make sense is moving Hau’oli Kikaha to defensive end from strongside linebacker. He might need to add some bulk to succeed off the edge in the NFL, but he was one of the most productive pass rushers in college football in 2014. While he had moments of brilliance at linebacker during his rookie year, they were offset by the times when he was forced to drop back in coverage. It quickly became clear this wasn’t his strong suit.
With multiple options at linebacker, if the team feels he’d perform better with his hand in the dirt as a 4-3 end, the Saints could choose to move him down. This would allow Kikaha to play forward all the time and use his pursuit ability to snuff out runs. It could also help alleviate some of the issues at defensive end.
This could also create the option to move Davis Tull, who spent his rookie season on injured reserve, down to defensive end. Being that these two players are small, the Saints could look to move them to the seven-technique position Cam Jordan played last season. That would then move Jordan over to the other side of the line, where he played before Junior Galette was released.
If this change were to happen, the Saints would need to find another way to deploy their linebackers. It could mean dropping Laurinaitis in the middle, moving Stephone Anthony to the strong side and using Dannell Ellerbe on the weak side.
The Saints might not want to move Anthony, who showed plenty of promise as a rookie playing in the middle, but he has the skills to shine on the strong side. Moving over there would free him up to blitz more, which is something he did well during his rookie year. His coverage assignments would also be more straightforward, which is another thing that could play to his strengths.
And while almost all the reviews on Anthony were positive as a signal caller and quarterback of the defense, if Laurinaitis were to start in the middle, it would give New Orleans a seasoned player in the middle to help guys get lined up and in position. If the Saints wanted to keep Anthony on the field in the middle in nickel packages and have Laurinaitis come off, he could still be the signal caller.
There are a lot of possibilities. Going further down the list, if there are changes at defensive end, Bobby Richardson could then even slide inside to three-technique defensive tackle. In theory, this change could suit his game.
This is all assuming, of course, the Saints stick with a base 4-3 defense under defensive coordinator Dennis Allen. If he switches to a 3-4, all bets are off, and it’s anyone’s guess which two linebackers would play in the middle.
It’s also very possible that the two linebackers added will serve as depth. Or the Saints could simply make some changes at linebacker and not make changes at defensive end.
Right now, anything is possible in theory. But the Saints have options. And after not having many last year, options are very good to have.
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