Shifting Schemes: New Orleans Saints Switch to 3-4

| May 14, 2013

Curtis Lofton leads the Saints in their transition to 3-4 defenseNow that the NFL Draft is over and free agency, for the most part, has run its course, we can now start looking at the defenses in transition and how these new schemes will impact IDP leagues in 2013. I’ve already looked at the Browns and Cowboys, now we turn our attention to the Saints. New Orleans hired defensive coordinator, Rob Ryan, who has run 3-4 schemes in the past and will install one in New Orleans.

 

 

Defensive Line

The defensive line will have a new look, as Will Smith is no longer putting his hand in the dirt and shifts to stand-up outside linebacker. Cameron Jordan makes the move from 4-3 to 3-4 end, which is what he played in college at Cal, but will still focus on rushing the quarterback. He’s an aggressive rusher, and though some value is lost moving to the 3-4, he’ll be on the field for the majority of the downs. Last season, he played in over 90% of the defensive snaps and recorded 8 sacks and 45 total QB pressures. He also put up solid tackle numbers (67) and a decent tackle frequency for a DE (6.3%) in over 1,000 snaps. The switch knocks him from the ranks of a possible DL1 to more of a DL2, where eight-plus sacks are possible. His tackle numbers will drop, but Jordan is still a desirable IDP target.

Akiem Hicks at 6’5 and 300-plus lbs, could see time at both end and nose. Hicks saw most of his time 2012 at defensive tackle and appeared in 383 defensive snaps as a rotational interior lineman. The Saints are looking at him to play an increased role, thus, take on more defensive snaps. He’s a versatile DL and early projections have him manning the nose, but he’ll primarily backup Brodrick Bunkley. So for him to get on the field, he might have to play more end as a run stuffer. At either nose or end, he doesn’t project too high as an IDP prospect in the Saints’ system.

Kenyon Coleman, Rufus Johnson and Greg Romeus are likely IDP after-thoughts in most formats. Coleman is more the brand name here, as appeared in just 167 defensive snaps in 2012, but knows Ryan’s system and could be the one that kicks Hicks to the interior. Coleman doesn’t offer much in the pass-rushing game, and is known more for his ability to stop the run. Because of his limited snaps, tackle numbers are low offering very little in the way of consistency.

Brodrick Bunkley will man the nose tackle, but doesn’t offer much in the way of IDP upside. Bunkley has recorded 40+ tackles in just two seasons and is just there to occupy space and take up blockers so that the ends or linebackers can make the plays. There’s nothing wrong with that and he does it very well. He’s solid at stopping the run, but doesn’t produce enough stats to warrant being on an IDP roster, outside of being a DT2 in deeper leagues requiring a defensive tackle.

 

Linebackers

I mentioned Will Smith will transition to stand-up outside linebacker. Smith has been an under-rated pass rusher, as he’s had two seasons of 10+ sacks and just one season where he didn’t record at least five sacks. He’s also put up respectable tackle numbers (58 in 2012) and six straight of 40+ tackles. His rush skills to seem to be on the decline, as he’s only averaged six sacks in the last three seasons since recording 13 in 2009. He’s also making the shift from end to outside linebacker at age 33. Smith appeared in over 1,000 snaps, but his total overall production tailed off and is going to be pushed for snaps by up and comers, Victor Butler and Martez Wilson. He’s off the radar in most IDP formats.

When Curtis Lofton signed with the Saints, there was some worry that he’d only be a two-down linebacker and not play subpackages. That wasn’t the case, as Lofton played in nearly 100% of the snaps (98.6%), mostly because of the issues New Orleans had at linebacker (Hawthorne injuries, Vilma suspension) so it was more out of necessity. Lofton was still productive for his IDP owners, recording 123 tackles (82 solo) and a 10.8% tackle frequency. Even with Hawthorne healthy and Vilma returning, there’s no reason to think that he won’t be on the field for the majority of the downs. He’ll continue to be a sideline-to-sideline playmaker in Ryan’s 3-4 scheme and should hold onto his borderline LB1 value.

Jonathan Vilma is coming off ‘Bountygate’ played in 11 games in 2012 and according to the Times-Picayune, he’s in the running for the starting inside linebacker job opposite Lofton. Vilma is 31, but enjoyed productive seasons in New York as the Jets ILB in their 3-4, averaging nearly 130 tackles in three full seasons . Vilma has some issues against the run, grading poorly in 2012, so there’s a possibility that he could be situational linebacker, or nickel linebacker, if David Hawthorne has a strong training camp. Vilma is committed to being healthy, so he could be a sleeper in 2013 in deeper IDP leagues.

After posting 338 tackles in three seasons for the Seahawks, David Hawthorne signed with the Saints in 2012 and played in just 11games. Hawthorne dealt with hamstring issues throughout the 2012 season that limited his availability and recorded just 38 tackles. Hawthorne could be in a camp battle with Vilma for the starting job, but even if he beats out Vilma, there’s the possibility he’s not a three-down linebacker, losing those nickel snaps to Vilma. Hawthorne can still make tackles (12.2% tackle frequency in the last four seasons), but his IDP upside is limited to no more than an LB5 in most formats.

Depth charts don’t mean too much these days, but Martez Wilson could be a starter by the time Week 1 of the season rolls around. Wilson played mostly on passing downs and nickel packages, but did manage 24 total QB pressures in just 206 pass rush snaps, so he was getting to the QB in 11.7% of his pass rush snaps. His size compares favorably to play the rush role at OLB and fits in well with Ryan’s aggressive, get to the QB style.

How will his numbers translate to IDP success? He should be rostered in deeper dynasty formats, but from a re-draft standpoint, it remains to be seen how many snaps he’s going to see. Monitor the camp battle throughout the offseason, but his upside could be capped if he’s in on obvious passing downs, plus as an outside linebacker, he’ll be asked to get to the QB, not necessarily make a tackle behind the line of scrimmage. I like the upside in bigger play leagues where sacks and tackles for a loss are valued more than tackles.

Junior Galette and Victor Butler are also going to compete for snaps at outside linebacker. Butler has tremendous upside as a pass rusher and played in Ryan’s defense in 2012. Butler doesn’t have a whole lot of mileage on the treads and has managed 46 total QB Pressures in just 413 total pass rush snaps (including 11 sacks). Butler is going to give Will Smith a run for his money for a starting spot and snaps. Butler offers more upside at 25 than Smith does at age 33, especially due to talent and knowledge of the scheme. Butler, hopefully, can get on the field for more than just nickel packages. Butler’s IDP value lies in dynasty leagues, however, in re-draft leagues he will need to see at least 900 defensive snaps and play the run.

 

Defensive Back

The Saints improved their secondary using the draft and free agency. First, they upgraded at corner by signing former Steeler, Keenan Lewis. Lewis appeared in over 900 defensive snaps in 2012, and while he didn’t have an INT, he did manage 23 defended passes in 112 targets and 71 tackles. The signing of Lewis means that Patrick Robinson will have more of a situational role and man the slot. Lewis is more than capable of playing 1,000+ snaps and the Saints high scoring offense means that he’ll be seeing as many targets as opposing teams try to keep up. Lewis carries CB2 value in IDP leagues that require a starting cornerback.

The Saints made Kenny Vaccaro their 1st round selection in the 2013 draft. Vaccaro’s a playmaker that can play anywhere on the field, whether it be near the line of scrimmage or cover deep. It’s unclear at this time if he’ll compete for the free safety gig or strong safety gig. According to the Times-Picayune, he’ll be battling for strong safety (his position at Texas), so Roman Harper could be the odd man out, leaving Malcolm Jenkins at the free. Vaccaro should be the top safety off the board in dynasty leagues and should be on the field enough to provide DB2 value in re-draft formats.

Speaking of Jenkins and Harper, both struggled mightily in 2012, grading very poorly on tape. Harper’s big plays tailed off significantly, as his role changed and saw his total QB pressures dip from 21 (9 sacks) in 2011 to just 9 with no sacks in 2012. He still recorded 115 tackles and 11 defended passes. Jenkins recorded 94 tackles, but missed on 20 attempts and also struggled in pass coverage. There’s a possibility that Jenkins gets moved to corner or play corner during nickel situations. Jenkins’ and Harper’s IDP value took a hit with the addition of Vaccaro, as they are looked at more of a DB3 especially with the lack of big plays.

 

Mike Woellert is a Senior Writer for Pro Football Focus Fantasy. Follow him on Twitter @PFF_MWoellert

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