Armed with two first-round picks in the 2015 NFL Draft, and after padding the offensive line with stud Andrus Peat out of Stanford at No. 13 overall, the New Orleans Saints used four of their seven subsequent picks on three solid linebackers and a defensive tackle to shore up one of the NFL’s worst rushing defenses.
As of now, it’s possible that run defense won’t be an issue for coordinator Rob Ryan in 2015.
The Saints missed the playoffs for the second time in three years with a 7-9 record in large part due to a downtrodden run defense that ranked No. 29 in the NFL with 132.8 yards allowed per game, and only two other teams allowed more than their 17 rushing scores.
Essentially, New Orleans needed to shore up their defensive line and linebacker corps, and it wasn’t a problem they could fix in free agency with one of the worst salary cap situations in the league. Instead they dealt expensive Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham to the Seattle Seahawks for their first-round pick this year.
At No. 31 overall they tabbed Clemson inside linebacker Stephone Anthony, and followed up in the second round at No. 44 overall with Washington outside linebacker Hau’Oli Kikaha. On Day Three, New Orleans burned both of its fifth round selections on Chattanooga outside linebacker Davis Tull and Fresno State defensive tackle Tyeler Davison.
Blessed with prototypical size, the 6-foot-3 243-pound Anthony was part of a vicious Tigers tandem that included fellow first-round pick Vic Beasley, and scouts projected him to go high after he lost and then regained a starting role in his senior season.
“He got refocused,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney recently said about Anthony. “He’s as good a person, player, committed guy as I’ve been around.”
The Saints will need that work ethic as Anthony battles with inside linebacker David Hawthorne to replace veteran Curtis Lofton, who was cut because of his high cap number. Anthony might have the edge when training camp rolls around, posting a 4.56 40-yard dash time at the scouting combine that was the third-fastest among linebackers. It’s that kind of speed New Orleans will need to track down Carolina Panthers rushing quarterback Cam Newton when he takes flight from the pocket.
Kikaha led the NCAA with 19 sacks last year, and his former defensive line coach believes he can quickly adjust to Ryan’s schemes.
"I think you're going to have to be pretty dialed into specific calls because there's going to be a lot of variety in terms of the blitz package," the Huskies Jeff Choate said to The Times-Picayune. "But I think Hau will be great at that. He's going to study everything. He's going to know his assignment. He's going to know the man next to him's assignment."
Choate went on to say Kikaha could be especially useful as s pass rusher on third down, which bodes well for a Saints pass rush that was No. 25 in the league with 25 sacks last season.
Tull, a four-year starter in college, made a name for himself with a relentless and skillful style of play, and some felt he deserved to play on a much bigger stage in college. The 6-foot-3, 240-pound Tull proved everyone wrong with 37 career sacks, 60 tackles for a loss and 10 forced fumbles.
On the defensive line, Davison entered the draft as one of the strongest players in this year’s class with 32 reps in the bench press drill, tied for the fifth-most at his position. He already has the size for the position at 316 pounds, and Davison smashed opposing lines for 13 tackles for a loss in his final college season.
His foot speed and ability to play upfield are big question marks, but Davison might be just the tackle to stop north-south runners like Tampa Bay’s Doug Martin.