Predicting the Saints starting defense after the draft

The defense was a priority for the New Orleans Saints in the 2023 NFL draft, and their efforts paid off — the defensive line in particular is seen as one of the league’s most-improved units. But how many rookies and veteran free agent acquisitions will be running with the starters when the season starts?

That’s something we won’t learn for sure until training camp, but here’s our first projection for the Saints’ starters (and immediate backups) on defense going into the summer:

Left end: Cameron Jordan

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Backup: Tanoh Kpassagnon

Jordan is the unquestioned starter, but the Saints should be managing his snap counts more carefully so that he remains fresh and effective late into games. He’s propped up the defensive line for a decade now. Kpassagnon only played about 23 snaps per game as Jordan’s backup last year.

Defensive tackle: Bryan Bresee

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Backups: Nathan Shepherd, Malcolm Roach

The Saints run a rotation at this spot so we should expect Bresee to play about 35 snaps each week with Shepherd seeing 25 to 30 snaps. Roach averaged 24 snaps per game last year and the Saints could bring someone in to push him for that role.

Nose tackle

AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

Backup: N/A

The Saints don’t have another big body behind Saunders, though it’s possible Shepherd gets some snaps over center as he comes closest. Shy Tuttle was their go-to nose tackle last season and he averaged 32 snaps per game. Saunders had a career-high 27 snaps per week last season so New Orleans may need to look for another big man to back him up.

Right end: Carl Granderson

AP Photo/Derick Hingle

Backups: Payton Turner, Isaiah Foskey

It shouldn’t shock anyone if Foskey wins this job in camp. He’s more pro-ready than Turner was coming out of school and he has all the traits the Saints value, and though he’s improved his game Granderson has been at his best working as a pass-rush specialist. This is going to be a fun competition to observe over the summer.

Strongside linebacker: Zack Baun

AP Photo/Derick Hingle

Backup: Ryan Connelly

Can Baun have a Kaden Elliss-style breakout? Please? The Saints have minimized the role this position plays in their defense, but Baun’s college production as a pass rusher is something they should be able to tap into. They could just as easily stay the course and keep him on the sidelines.

Middle linebacker: Demario Davis

AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

Backups: D’Marco Jackson, Andrew Dowell, Anfernee Orji

Davis is another unquestioned leader on the defense, but he’s also getting older and the Saints need to explore succession plans. They don’t lack for options. Jackson was a fifth-round pick last year. Dowell is a key special teams player. Orji was a highly sought-after undrafted free agent. Who comes out on top?

Weakside linebacker: Pete Werner

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Backups: Nephi Sewell, Ty Summers, Nick Anderson

Werner’s physical abilities are obvious. He’s the best athlete the Saints have at linebacker. He’s also missed a lot of time with injuries including the first week of training camp last summer. This is another spot that could use another addition and layer of security.

Left cornerback: Alontae Taylor

AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

Backup: Paulson Adebo

Taylor emerged as the better option at this spot last season over Adebo while playing cleaner football with fewer penalties (though he needs to cut down on the missed tackles). Still, the Saints should have them compete for it again in camp.

Nickel defensive back: Bradley Roby

AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

Backups: Ugo Amadi, Jordan Howden

Roby should be seen as the starter in the slot right now and when everyone is healthy, but Amadi has started games in that role before in the NFL. Howden played there at a very high level in college and he’s my sleeper pick for a rookie starter.

Strong safety: Tyrann Mathieu

AP Photo/Matthew Hinton

Backups: Smoke Monday, Johnathan Abram

Mathieu is on the same level as Jordan and Davis as respected leaders on the wrong side of 30. Monday and Abram have their work cut out for them in staying on the roster after the Saints added so many defensive backs this offseason.

Free safety: Marcus Maye

AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

Backups: J.T. Gray, Lonnie Johnson Jr.

How many games will Maye play this year? He missed seven of them with injuries last year, and he’s facing a potential suspension stemming from a 2021 DUI case in Florida that’s still making its way through the courts. Gray signed a multiyear extension this offseason and Johnson has experience playing over the top, so the Saints do have some depth.

Right cornerback: Marshon Lattimore

AP Photo/Derick Hingle

Backup: Isaac Yiadom

Realistically the Saints are going to have whoever isn’t actively starting out of Paulson Adebo and Alontae Taylor starting in Lattimore’s spot on the right side if he misses more time, and Bradley Roby is an option, too. But Yiadom is a good player on special teams who also brings a lot of experience playing corner on the right side of the defense like Lattimore, and the Saints could call him up in a pinch.

Story originally appeared on Saints Wire