New Orleans Saints: The curious case of Zack Baun
By Darral Nail
New Orleans Saints fans have likely heard the ‘vision thing’ a dozen times or more. Sean Payton — as consistently on-message as any coach in the league when dealing with the media — seemingly evokes a familiar mantra each time he is asked about a new addition to the team’s roster — That it is about having a vision for the player and how he can help the team.
Trite as such a statement might sound, here is the thing though — He is not wrong.
Even a cursory review of the Saints’ current roster will reveal a methodical approach on part of team decision-makers when it comes to evaluating, procuring, and developing talented young players.
From a recent Who Dat Dish roster projection, 40 of the 53 players predicted to make up the Saints 2021 team made their way to New Orleans directly via the first-year player process, with 25 arriving as Saints draft picks and still another 15 signed by the team directly as undrafted free agents.
Of the 13 free agent signings that figure to populate the team in the upcoming season, two (Patrick Robinson and Malcolm Jenkins) entered the league originally as first-round picks of the Saints. This free agent number also includes Taysom Hill, who, although technically signed by New Orleans as a free agent upon his release from Green Bay before the 2017 regular season, would be considered by most a home-grown prospect of the Saints.
With less than one-fifth of a presumed 2021 Saints roster arriving via other league teams, and viewed in the light of a franchise that won 49 regular-season games over the last four seasons, it is hard to argue that Payton and the team’s ‘vision’ is approaching 20/20.
This is why it is surprising to see a situation such as that of Zack Baun, the No. 74 selection in the 2020 NFL Draft. Let’s dive in more on this topic.
Are the New Orleans Saints misusing Baun or was he miscast?
Despite generating some late-first round buzz early in the lead-up to last year’s draft, Baun’s fall to the top of the third round was nonetheless predictable.
An ultra-productive (12.5 sacks and 76 tackles as a senior) outside linebacker in Wisconsin’s 3-4 defense, It was generally accepted among the scouting community that Baun was a dangerous pass rusher off the edge and a ferocious blitzer. The Draft Network was one of the many outlets preaching this to the public.
Likewise, there was seeming agreement as to his weaknesses when projected into the NFL. While mostly reflected upon Baun’s size and length limitations, there was no shortage of concern from draft prognosticators in regard both to his positional fit and his ability to hold up as an every-down run defender.
All this to say, the college prospect gave the appearance of a player with a very particular value proposition, one which might require some schematic creativity at the next level — something of which the team drafting him must be aware.
Regardless, many could have predicted that Baun would receive first-billing as an off-ball SAM linebacker if drafted by a team that employs a 4-3 defense. What could be seen as surprising is that the Saints, a team which so rarely deploys a third proper linebacker, would choose to utilize Baun in this position, and this position alone, as opposed to figuring out a way for Baun to also showcase his ability as a natural pass rusher.
Therefore, when Baun was on the field as part of the Saints’ “base” defensive package, an amount that accounted for less than 10% of the team’s defensive snaps, it was almost exclusively in base/run down situations. In fact, of Baun’s 102 appearances on defense, only 30 came against plays in which the opponent’s intent was to pass.
In essence, a dynamic yet undersized college EDGE defender, one who was known much more for terrorizing opposing quarterbacks than his play against the run, was welcomed to the NFL with a switch to an occasional role as the team’s primary second-level run defender.
How does Pete Werner fit in with the New Orleans Saints?
Perhaps it is now, with the team appearing intent on asking the will-be second-year pro to once again change positions, this time to the WILL (weakside) linebacker spot, that a flaw in the organization’s vision seems most apparent.
Given that the remarkable recent year-over-year improvement on part of the Saints’ defense has corresponded somewhat directly with the team’s commitment to upgrading the talent and depth at linebacker, it seems fitting that New Orleans would elect to use one of their top selections in the 2021 NFL Draft on the position.
Pete Werner, the battle-tested and seemingly pro-ready former Ohio State defensive leader in whom the Saints invested a second-round pick in this year’s draft, profiles as a worthy year one replacement for departed regulars Kwon Alexander and Alex Anzalone on the weak side of the defense alongside the All-Pro Demario Davis.
Should Werner fail to immediately claim a role as the team’s starting WILL ‘backer, defensive coordinator Dennis Allen and company would likely turn their attention to Chase Hansen, a converted safety on whose potential the Saints staff is thought to be a fan of, per Nick Underhill.
Also fighting for a roster spot will be practice squad fixture Andrew Dowell, himself an undersized, athletic player who likewise appears best suited for duty on the weak side.
With no cut-and-dry landing spot for him on the team’s depth chart heading into 2021, and the built-in competition awaiting at this newest of positions, it could appear that the Saints as a franchise have done Zack Baun relatively few favors during his short time in New Orleans.
Though the success of the team’s roster-building approach speaks for itself, it is not without blemish. Should a talented, bright, and hard-working young player like Baun ultimately fall by the wayside, it will be worth asking just what exactly the vision was for him in New Orleans in the first place?