The label is kind of dubious.
The Saints are advertised as a 3-4 defense, but that wasn’t necessarily the case last year. The team spent more than half of its snaps in nickel packages and quite often used 4-3 looks as the so-called base package.
Drafting players strictly for the base package might be a somewhat antiquated idea in the pass-happy era of the NFL. But regardless of the view, the Saints enter next week’s draft with a need for a linebacker.
Whether that player plays on the inside in a 3-4 front or on the outside in a 4-3 is immaterial. With a stable of linebackers who all perform well against the run, New Orleans could use a player who performs well against the pass and has the potential to stay on the field in nickel sets.
Here’s a look at some guys who could fit the bill within the first five rounds of the draft:
Targets at 31
Eric Kendricks, UCLA: Kendricks is easily the best coverage linebacker in this draft, which makes him even more valuable because the NFL has become so pass oriented. He can cover linebackers and tight ends, meaning that he will be able to stay on the field in nickel packages. New Orleans has a lot of linebackers who are capable of doing different things, but the Saints lack a linebacker with elite coverage skills.
Shaq Thompson, Washington: The biggest question concerning Thompson is where he will play at the next level — and this might not be the right spot to place him. He has the skills to play running back, linebacker or safety. He’s maintained that he’s a linebacker throughout the predraft process. If that’s the case, he could fit in well on the inside when the Saints are in their base 3-4 or play weakside linebacker in a 4-3. There’s no question he has some of the best coverage skills of any linebacker in this class. He’ll need to add bulk after weighing in at 228 pounds. Rob Ryan would certainly find a way to use him and get the most out of his unique skill set.
Targets at 44
Denzel Perryman, Miami: He plays much bigger than his 5-foot-11 size. Perryman is a violent hitter who brings an edge to the field. The problem is that he can be a liability in coverage and was exposed at times in college. NFL offenses will be even better at exploiting his weaknesses. Some of his issues could be disguised, but the Saints might want a player who can stand out for the right reasons in coverage.
Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State: When watching McKinney, he always seems to be around the play. He’s big and physical (6-4, 247 pounds) and can play both inside and outside. He can jam tight ends and is serviceable against the pass, but he could improve in man coverage. He plays too high at times, making him easy to block, and he sometimes struggles to change direction.
Stephone Anthony, Clemson: After Kendricks, Anthony is probably the most accomplished coverage linebacker in this draft. He’s shown the ability to cover in both man and zone schemes. An effective blitzer, Anthony finishes well when he gets to the quarterback. He could show more physicality for his size (6-2, 243 pounds).
Targets at 75 and 78
Paul Dawson, TCU: Dawson does most everything well. He’s a sideline-to-sideline player who is a very physical tackler. He performs well in coverage and has the potential to be a three-down player. Dawson plays like he’s on fire at times, which can get him in trouble.
Targets at 154
Taiwan Jones, Michigan State: Jones is a solid downhill player, but it’s unlikely that he will ever possess the coverage skills to stay on the field on third downs. If the Saints are looking to improve in coverage at the linebacker position, Jones might not fit the bill.
Martrell Spaight, Arkansas: Spaight is another downhill linebacker who performs well against the run. But he lacks the size (6-foot) and speed (4.88 40-yard dash) to perform well in coverage.
Bryce Hager, Baylor: He performs well against the run and has serviceable coverage skills. He likely won’t develop into a star, but could provide solid depth for a defense.