Saints training camp countdown Part 5: linebackers
METAIRIE – Demario Davis is one of the New Orleans Saints best players.
And that’s why he’ll be one of the least visible during the team’s preseason games.
The Saints know what they have in the player that has led the team in tackles in each of his four previous seasons and figures to do so again in 2022.
But they don’t know nearly as much about what they have in the rest of their linebackers. That’s why they’ll warrant far more scrutiny than Davis in training camp, which starts in two weeks, and the preseason.
The Saints have invested a draft choice in a linebacker in each of the last four drafts, trying to bolster the group around Davis.
Davis is the leader of the defense, but it’ll be the performance of the younger linebackers that will matter in training camp.
Of the four draft choices, the most recent veteran – 2021 second-round pick Pete Werner – did more as a rookie last season than 2020 third-round pick Zack Baun has done in two seasons and 2019 seventh-round Kaden Elliss has done in three.
“He’s an extremely intelligent player who has got the ability now to talk real football outside of scheme and how an offense is trying to attack us,” linebackers coach Michael Hodges said of Werner. “That allows us to take the next step and avoid the big play that could happen against that coverage.
“We were in Algebra II and we’re definitely in Calculus now. It’s a tribute to how he works and his intelligence. He’s a smart player who had a lot of experience in college and he came in here and just put his head down and worked. He didn’t talk he just listened and asked questions when it was the right time.”
Hodges said Baun has “grown a lot” in his transition from a mostly pass-rushing linebacker in college to a sideline-to-sideline tackler in the NFL.
“He has overcome a lot of those challenges of vision that’s different from an inside linebacker to an outside linebacker,” Hodges said. “His versatility is exciting.”
Elliss opened eyes in his rookie training camp, then suffered a torn ACL and hasn’t carved out a consistent role yet.
“Whatever role we’ve asked him to do he has done it really well and I think he’s had a good offseason this year,” Hodges said of Elliss. “Every year you see development. He knows our scheme extremely well. He’s one of the veterans in the room and he acts like that.
“However this roster falls and whatever roles he has he’s going to be the best in the NFL at that role, whatever that role is and that’s how he attacks it every day.”
The Saints went back to the draft well in April when they used a fifth-round choice on D’Marco Jackson from Appalachian State.
“Sometimes rookies can get overwhelmed and it can seem like a lot for them, but the way he has handled it – it’s really impressive for a rookie to be that professional,” Hodges said. “I probably pay attention to off-the-field stuff as much as anything and that’s been impressive. And every day he has gotten better.
“You talk about the almost cliché term of “1 percent better” and that’s really where he is. He just keeps doing it. Every day there’s something that he didn’t do the day before that he’s doing now. If he keeps compounding interest like this we’re going to be in good shape with this young player.”
Jackson was Defensive Player of the Year in the Sun Belt Conference, but was just as valuable on special teams in college.
“Wherever he falls in that (special teams) role and wherever we can treat him as a backup Mike or a Will, he’s got some versatility there,” Hodges said, “so we’ll see how he develops and where he falls with the roster but he’s on the right path.”
Andrew Dowell arrived in the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the Dallas Cowboys in 2019, spent 2020 on the Saints practice squad before making the roster as primarily a special teamer last season.
Hodges said Dowell benefited from having “a mentor” in former Saints linebacker and special teams captain Craig Robertson.
“There are a lot of similarities between those players in the sense of their role,” Hodges said. “Craig is super instinctual as an inside linebacker and Drew is growing in that sense.
“But Drew’s ability to be a backup that we can trust and then be an extremely important role on special teams has kept him active the last year and he really jumped into that last year.”
The Saints often times play just two linebackers at a time, opting for a fifth defensive back as traditional linebacking roles are getting redefined.
“At the Sam position those guys have to have some versatility,” Hodges said. “They need to be either a Sam pass-rush guy or a Sam to inside linebacker and our guys have to have a little bit of both.
“We don’t ever bring in a guy who’s just a heavy-handed, hybrid outside linebacker. We’ve had some of those and we try to work with them and they really live on base downs with me and then on third downs they go with (defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen) and they work on the defensive pass-rush stuff.”
Projected starters: Demario Davis, Pete Werner
Arrivals: D’Marco Jackson (D-6), Eric Wilson (FA), Isaiah Pryor, Nephi Sewell
Other returning players: Zach Baun, Andrew Dowell, Kaden Elliss
Notable departures: Kwon Alexander, Chase Hansen
Roster spots: 5-6
To read all of the pre-training camp analysis on the countdown, click here.
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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…