January 24, 2013

Saints Move to 3-4 Has Exciting Possibilities; Shakeup Likely

Sean Payton's announced switch to the 3-4 defense should herald a 2013 feature of the team's two young speed rushers.

Primary benefactors of the Saints' move to a 3-4 defense will be defensive ends Junior Galette and Martez Wilson.  Both are undersized, quick and speedy, with Wilson having history playing 4-3 outside linebacker through college and his rookie season.  Neither player could ever be expected to blossom as a full-time 4-3 defensive end, but as outside linebackers in a 3-4 they could be stars for an as-yet unannounced defensive coordinator.

The switch also simplifies the Saints' defensive line during this transitional year, and plays into the strengths of the team's young building block on the line - 2011 first round pick Cam Jordan, who played the 3-4 at Cal and has the powerful frame to play inside the tackle as a 3-4 defensive end.  It removes the need for the Saints to draft high on a defensive end, but creates a need for prototype titanic 3-4 nose tackle.

Brodrick Bunkley and his five year, $25 million contract will figure into the mix on the defensive line.   Bunkley has never played in the 3-4 and so may be suited more for 3-4 DE than the all-important 3-4 nose tackle position, which will regularly see triple blockers and must control the rush gaps on either shoulder of the offensive center.  There are offset schemes that use three down linemen and a stand up DE\OLB hybrid that reduce the need for a massive nose tackle, but the need remains.

The Saints likely do not have that nose tackle on the roster right now, and inexperienced 2012 third round pick Akiem Hicks is the closest thing.  At 6'5, 324, Hicks is big but like Bunkley, isn't the immovable wide-body required to play one of the toughest positions in the NFL, the 3-4 nose tackle.  Both Bunkley and Hicks have no experience but likely would have more success at 3-4 defensive end.

At the other 3-4 defensive end position, long-time Saint stalwart Will Smith just isn't a good fit.  Playing in the 260-270 pound range, Smith was fading against the run in the 2013 4-3 alignment, and isn't build for a 3-4 scheme.  The Saints will likely cut Smith and recoup $7.7 million in cap space, though they will eat $13 million in cap "dead weight" over the next two years.  Smith appeared in 139 regular season games in nine seasons as a Saint, and with the likely departure of WR Devery Henderson as well, would remove the final two Saint players from the Jim Haslett era.

To replace Smith, who may have been gone in any defensive alignment, NOPF predicted the 4-3 defense Saints would take LSU DE Sam Montgomery in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft.  However, the 3-4 defense Saints would still make good use of Montgomery, who has has the speed to play 3-4 edge rusher.  However, consider the presence of 6'4, 360 pound Georgia DT John Jenkins on the draft board and the Saints' desire to key the 3-4 on a massive nose tackle.

One of the advantages of the 3-4 defense is that it is "cheaper", since 3-4 outside linebackers and defensive ends are easier to find - and therefore more replaceable - than 4-3 outside linebackers and defensive ends.

At linebacker, things fall into place, though the re-education must begin immediately - no current Saint linebacker or hybrid end/linebacker has significant experience in a pro 3-4.  Inside linebackers Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne are good enough fits, though both will require adjustment and retraining.  At outside linebacker, Galette and Wilson can bring the heat and have experience dropping into the flat for pass coverage.  Chris Chamberlain may also make the transition to 3-4 OLB well.

The Saints will likely release middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who forced a trade from the Jets to the Saints after New York moved to a 3-4 defense which did not suit him. Vilma will free up $6 million in much-needed cap space.  The Saints will also likely release backup linebacker Will Herring, which would clear $1.6 million of cap space.

OLB Scott Shanle is set for free agency, but is well liked and could be an option to backup, though he has little experience with the 3-4.

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