New Orleans Saints: Defensive Position Breakdown and Depth Chart Analysis
In 2012, the Saints fielded the worst defense in the NFL and the worst in league history up to that point. Just a year later, however, first-year defensive coordinator Rob Ryan orchestrated a remarkable turnaround, and New Orleans finished with the league's fourth-ranked defense.
This coming season, the Saints defense should be even better, as general manager Mickey Loomis has continued to improve the group's personnel. Free-agent additions Jairus Byrd and Champ Bailey, along with draft picks Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ronald Powell, will contribute to a deeper, more talented unit in 2014.
Following is an early look at New Orleans' defensive depth chart for the coming season.
Right Defensive End
Cam Jordan tallied a team-leading 12.5 sacks last season from his right defensive end spot, and he’s eyeing an even bigger year in 2014.
After Jordan, the Saints have Glenn Foster, who’s entering his second NFL season after joining the club as an undrafted free agent in 2013.
Foster can play either end position, and he’ll be looking to start strong in 2014 after recording three sacks and nine tackles a year ago.
After Foster, the right side of the Saints defensive front is rather thin. Undrafted rookies George Uko and Lawrence Virgil are both talented as well as versatile, but both are obviously lacking from an experience standpoint.
Left Defensive End
For the second straight season, the left side of the New Orleans defensive line will be anchored by Akiem Hicks. The 6’5”, 325-pounder has elite size for an end, and he possesses the strength to take on double-teams.
The third-year pro is still somewhat raw, but he demonstrated huge potential all throughout last season, and he’s poised for a breakout year in 2014.
Hicks, like Jordan on the right side, will be spelled by the aforementioned Glenn Foster. The next left end in line should be Tyrunn Walker, a local product who registered 12 tackles and a sack last season.
The Saints don’t exactly have a deep well of proven players at defensive end, but with Jordan and Hicks in the starting lineup, the position should be one of great strength for them in the coming season.
The chief building block of a 3-4 defensive scheme, such as the one run by Ryan in New Orleans, is a strong, space-eating nose tackle, and the Saints happen to have two of them.
Leading the way in the middle is starter Brodrick Bunkley. A first-round pick of the Philadelphia Eagles in 2006, he’s anchored the New Orleans defensive front for the better part of the past two seasons, totaling 36 tackles.
Bunkley may be the Saints’ starter at the nose, but second-year man John Jenkins will receive a significant number of snaps. At 360 pounds, the 2013 third-round draft pick has the size to handle multiple blockers, and he helps form a formidable rotation in the middle of the Saints defense.
After Bunkley and Jenkins, New Orleans has undrafted rookie Moses McCray. The Akron product spent three seasons at Florida State before transferring for his senior year, and he'll provide another capable body in fall camp.
Behind a formidable nose guard rotation, two dependable inside linebackers round out the middle of the New Orleans front seven.
Seventh-year pro Curtis Lofton serves as Rob Ryan’s signal-caller in the Saints' defensive huddle. A former Atlanta Falcon, he joined the Saints in 2012 and has since piled up nearly 250 tackles.
Next to Lofton is fellow inside 'backer David Hawthorne. The one-time Seattle Seahawk is also in his seventh season and his third with the Saints, and he’ll team with Lofton to form a solid tandem in the middle of Ryan’s defense.
Behind Lofton and Hawthorne, things get interesting. Ramon Humber saw action at both inside and outside 'backer in 2013, and the Saints front office saw fit to bring him back with a one-year deal this offseason.
Humber could be pushed for playing time, however, by Kevin Reddick. The second-year thumper was impressive throughout the 2013 preseason, and he could be ready to see the field this year after a full offseason with the club.
Next in line on the depth chart is 2014 fourth-round draft pick Khairi Fortt. The former California Golden Bear is an explosive sideline-to-sideline linebacker, but he’ll need to spend some time familiarizing himself with Ryan’s system before he sees significant snaps.
Like the inside linebacker position, the Saints have experienced starters returning at the outside 'backer spot.
Junior Galette tops the depth chart, and he’ll be looking to follow up on his 12-sack breakout season from a year ago. The 258-pounder proved difficult to corral as an edge-rusher, and his emergence provided an ideal complement in the pass-rushing department to end Cameron Jordan.
At the other slot on the outside, Victor Butler will try to fend off Parys Haralson for the starting position. Butler signed as a free agent in 2013 but missed the entire season with a knee injury.
The Saints replaced him in the preseason by trading for Haralson, whose play was steady enough for New Orleans to re-sign him to a one-year deal.
Butler is likely to emerge as the starter, but Haralson is a proven contributor in Ryan’s defense, and he’ll receive plenty of playing time as a backup to both Galette and Butler.
Next in line on the outside, for now, is seventh-year pro Keyunta Dawson, who was added to the roster in Week 6 of the 2013 season.
It will be difficult, however, for the Saints to keep 2014 fifth-round draft choice Ronald Powell from seeing the field. The former Florida Gator brings explosive pass-rushing capabilities to the table, and it may not take long for New Orleans to begin working him into the rotation as a situational pass-rusher.
Also competing for roster spots in camp will be second-year pro Rufus Johnson, third-year man Cheta Ozougwu and undrafted rookies Kasim Edebali and Chidera Uzo-Diribe.
New Orleans looks to be loaded in the defensive backfield in 2014, and the team’s strong secondary is spearheaded by a prototypical lockdown cover man in Keenan Lewis.
The Saints’ No. 1 cornerback had an exceptional debut season in New Orleans last year after coming over from Pittsburgh as a free agent, and his man-to-man coverage skills allow Ryan to open up his blitz-heavy defensive scheme.
The No. 2 corner spot should showcase the Saints' most competitive position battle of fall camp and preseason, as the competition among Patrick Robinson, Corey White and Champ Bailey is sure to be intense. Only one of these three corners will emerge as the starter opposite Lewis on the outside, but the other two will still see the field often in nickel and dime situations.
New Orleans’ cornerback depth chart received a significant boost this offseason when the team selected Stanley Jean-Baptiste in the second round of the draft.
The 6’3”, 218-pounder has the length that’s been highly coveted at the position in recent years, and it seems like only a matter of time before he challenges for a starting position on the outside.
The depth chart is rounded out by second-year corner Rod Sweeting, while Trevin Wade and Terrence Frederick will look to impress the coaching staff enough to steal a roster spot.
Much like the cornerback position, the Saints’ depth chart at safety is talented and deep.
Free-agent acquisition Jairus Byrd was the biggest offseason addition to the New Orleans roster, and much is expected of the three-time Pro Bowler this coming fall.
Starting along with Byrd will be second-year man Kenny Vaccaro, who had an impressive rookie season after being selected in the first round of the 2013 draft.
Most teams would be happy to have two highly capable safeties such as Byrd and Vaccaro patrolling the back end, but the Saints have essentially a third starter in the form of Rafael Bush.
The hard-hitting four-year veteran was dangerously close to becoming an Atlanta Falcon this offseason as a restricted free agent, but New Orleans made the necessary steps to keep him in black and gold. He’ll receive a lot of playing time this season, and he could even share the field with Byrd and Vaccaro if Ryan utilizes a three-safety look.
Next on the depth chart is former Toronto Argonaut Marcus Ball. Signed this offseason after two seasons in the CFL, his arrival gives the Saints another “box” safety who can step up and defend the run.
Then there’s fourth-round draft pick Vinnie Sunseri. The son of a collegiate coach, the 6’0”, 210-pounder played the role of signal-caller in Alabama’s secondary for the past two seasons, and he has the size and athleticism to play either safety spot.