How will the Eagles use free agent pickup Zack Baun?

How will the Eagles use free agent pickup Zack Baun? originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

Zack Baun is ready to play anywhere.

But it’s pretty clear he’d like to rush the passer.

A couple days after agreeing to terms with the Eagles on a one-year deal, the veteran linebacker said last week that he’s interested to see where the coaches decide to play him in 2024.

“I’m not particularly sure about the plan,” Baun said. “But I have a lot of experience doing both and I think I can do both at a high level. So I’m interested to see where the coaches utilize my skillset and decide to play me. But I’m down to play wherever and do whatever.”

The Saints drafted Baun in the third round out of Wisconsin in the 2020 draft and played him at off-ball linebacker for the first few years of his career. But he played minimally on defense.

It wasn’t until 2023, when a combination of injuries and solid practice reps gave Baun a chance to finally be used as a pass rusher, that he really showed what he could do. Baun definitely provided a spark with a couple sacks and four quarterback hits.

Baun said Saints veteran defensive end Cam Jordan would be on the sideline helping him prepare his rush plan and the other Saints edge rushers were excited to help as well.

“So supportive and so encouraging,” Baun said. “Because at my time in New Orleans, they all knew I could pass rush, they’ve seen it. But I just never got the opportunity. So when I finally got my opportunity, they were excited for me.”

Since signing Baun, the Eagles have added a couple off-ball linebackers in Devin White and Oren Burks. It would have been a mistake for the Eagles to sign Baun as a solution to their linebacker problem.

At 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, it’s not like Baun is going to be an every-down edge rusher either. He’s more like a hybrid rusher in an off-ball linebacker’s body. He should end up filling a very specific role in Vic Fangio’s defense in 2024 as an undersized situational rusher.

Here’s a breakdown of Baun’s defensive snaps last season, per PFF:

D-line: 252
Box: 33
Slot corner: 15
Wide corner: 1

Earlier in his career, Baun was lining up in the box as an off-ball linebacker way more often. So those numbers indicated a significant shift.

Because even though Baun has the ability to play some off the ball, he showed in 2023 that his strength is rushing the passer. And he even admitted last week that there were some frustrating moments waiting for that opportunity to come.

“At times. I think I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t,” Baun said. “But I just put my head down and kept working and if I didn’t get opportunities on the edge, I’d get them elsewhere, on special teams or inside linebacker and work on my craft that way.”

Even if most of Baun’s opportunities with the Eagles on defense come rushing the passer, he’s still going to need to drop on occasion too. (Heck, there are going to be times where all of the Eagles’ edge rushers will have to drop.) And that’s where some of Baun’s experience from New Orleans will pay off.

And then there’s special teams. Baun was a core special teamer in New Orleans, playing 1,293 special teams snaps since 2020. Just eight players in the NFL have played more snaps on special teams since Baun entered the league.

So you can bet he will be a nice addition to Michael Clay’s units in 2024.

“Special teams gave me an opportunity in this league,” Baun said. “And I’m an effort and energy guy and that’s what it takes to play special teams and I don’t think that will ever leave me as long as I’m in the NFL.”

One of the first phone calls Baun received after news broke that he was coming to Philly was from T.J. Edwards. The former Eagles linebacker was teammates with Baun at Wisconsin and called to tell him just how much he would love the city.

Baun and Edwards have something else in common too: They were both quarterbacks in high school until flipping to defense at Wisconsin. That was when Baun really figured out he could get after quarterbacks.

“It was kind of the first thing I did when I made the switch to defense in college,” Baun said. “ …. That was what I learned. And now since, I’ve grown and learned so many things about defense in general and the linebacker play. I think it’s a tool in my toolbox now, among many other things.”

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