Projecting the Saints’ starting defense following the 2024 NFL draft

Week 1 is months away, but there’s potential for change this summer. We’re projecting the New Orleans Saints’ starting defense following the 2024 NFL draft, having accounted for the team’s free agent pickups and rookie draft picks. The Saints also lost multiple backups and key rotation players in free agency like cornerback Isaac Yiadom, defensive tackle Malcolm Roach, and linebacker Zack Baun as well as starting safety Marcus Maye. Dennis Allen’s defense is going to look at least a little different.

Projecting the Saints' starting defense following the 2024 NFL draft

So what’s different? What stayed the same? Here’s our take on which players could be introduced first when the Who Dat Nation gathers at the Caesars Superdome in September:

CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA – SEPTEMBER 25: Cameron Jordan #94 of the New Orleans Saints rushes against Taylor Moton #72 of the Carolina Panthers during the first quarter at Bank of America Stadium on September 25, 2022 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Challenger: Chase Young

No way the Saints ask Jordan to be a two-down player, right? They probably should after an ankle injury forced him into that role last season. Young isn’t going to start over Jordan but he should cut into the veteran’s workload on third downs and obvious passing situations. Keeping Jordan fresh and healthy for December (and, hopefully, January) should be a priority.

Dec 3, 2023; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; New Orleans Saints defensive tackle Nathan Shepherd (93) against the Detroit Lions during the first half at Caesars Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Challenger: Bryan Bresee

Bresee needs to win this job, full stop. The Saints were happier with Shepherd’s performance last season than some on the outside and his restructured contract this spring guarantees he’ll be playing heavy minutes. That doesn’t mean Bresee should still be limited to playing on passing downs. The 2023 first round draft pick must show that he’s grown into a better all-around defender who can hold ground against the run. The sooner he’s earning more snaps and playing more often, the better.

Nov 5, 2023; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; New Orleans Saints defensive tackle Khalen Saunders (99) shows emotion after an interception against the Chicago Bears during the second half at the Caesars Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Challenger: Khristian Boyd

Saunders is the favorite to take point when opposing teams try to run on New Orleans, and there’s a good chance he’ll hold onto that role by the time training camp ends. It’s just too easy to buy into the possibility that Boyd has more to offer in this role. Sure, he’s making the jump from a lower level of competition. But the rookie was seriously impressive in college and spent his week at the Shrine Bowl pushing around future NFL players. He has a chance to unseat Saunders. How strong those chances are is up to you.

Dec 5, 2022; Tampa, Florida, USA; New Orleans Saints defensive end Carl Granderson (96) reacts dagger recovering a fumble against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the third quarter at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Challengers: Payton Turner, Isaiah Foskey

Believe it or not, Turner made this a real conversation last summer. He was healthy and made a lot of plays at training camp without missing a single practice. It’s just a shame things took a bad turn when the season started. It would be a surprise for either him or Foskey to take Granderson’s spot on top of the depth chart, but never say never. They have the talent. Can they harness it and outplay the team’s best pass rusher?

Sep 12, 2021; Jacksonville, Florida, USA; New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis (56) drives Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones (33) out of abound during the second half at TIAA Bank Field. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Challengers: None

The Saints have some players they like as backups for Davis like Nephi Sewell and D’Marco Jackson, but neither of them are going to cut into his snaps or threaten his starting job. He’s the captain and vocal leader of their defense. The question is how much longer can he keep it going when he’s already the oldest linebacker in the NFL? For 2024 at least, the hope is he can keep winning his race with Father Time.

Sep 10, 2023; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints linebacker Pete Werner (20) breaks up a pass intended for Tennessee Titans tight end Chigoziem Okonkwo (85) in the first quarter at Caesars Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Nelles-USA TODAY Sports

Challengers: Willie Gay

This figures to be one of the most heated competitions at Saints training camp. Gay has qualities Werner doesn’t offer in coverage, and he’s going to push the fourth-year pro hard for this starting job. Right now we’re guessing Werner bounces back from a down year in 2023 when teams picked on him on passing downs. He was much more effective earlier in his career against the pass, so hopefully he’s learned what works and what doesn’t. But by no means are we ruling Gay out.

INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA – AUGUST 20: Paulson Adebo (L) #29 of the New Orleans Saints tackles Quentin Johnston #1 of the Los Angeles Chargers during the first quarter of the preseason game at SoFi Stadium on August 20, 2023 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

Challengers: Alontae Taylor, Kool-Aid McKinstry

The Saints have four quality cornerbacks and just three spots for them, so somebody is getting pushed aside. Adebo should be expected to start here again in 2024 after he played so well in 2023, which started by winning the job from Taylor in training camp. But the Saints always make this a competition so both Taylor and McKinstry will get their opportunities to push Adebo over the summer.

Nov 4, 2023; Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide defensive back Kool-Aid McKinstry (1) celebrates after a missed field goal by LSU at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary Cosby Jr.-USA TODAY Sports

Challengers: Alontae Taylor, Will Harris

Hot take time: we’re predicting that McKinstry will pick up the slot faster than Taylor did and win the job by the end of training camp, giving him a role right out of the gate. The Saints run more nickel than base defense by a significant margin (seven different defensive backs played more snaps than their third linebacker last year) so this could be a huge opportunity for the rookie. Why the change? Taylor was benched twice last year while struggling badly against slot receivers, and no player allowed more catches or yards in that role. McKinstry has better hips, change of direction ability, and quicker play recognition. He’s much better suited to the slot than Taylor. We’ll see if the Saints agree.

Dec 21, 2023; Inglewood, California, USA; Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Puka Nacua (17) runs the ball against New Orleans Saints safety Jordan Howden (31) during the first half at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Challengers: Johnathan Abram, Will Harris

The Saints brought a couple of rookies in to push Howden, so this should be a good competition over the summer. Remember that Abram started ahead of Howden to close out the 2023 season, too. It would be great to see the second-year pro step up and win this job but that’s far from certain. He had enough positive flashes as a rookie to justify more confidence going into 2024.

Nov 26, 2023; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; New Orleans Saints safety Tyrann Mathieu (32) celebrates with teammates after an interception against the Atlanta Falcons in the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Challengers: None

Mathieu is another every-down defender for the Saints, and his spot in the starting lineup is secure. They should still be looking for a successor in the next year or two, but Mathieu is a great player. He leads the team with 7 interceptions over the two years he’s spent in New Orleans.

Sep 18, 2023; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; New Orleans Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore (23) signals a turnover by Carolina Panthers in the second quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Challengers: None

If Lattimore is on the team, he’s starting. And it sounds like he will be. The Saints are not calling around looking for offers, says general manager Mickey Loomis, and the depressed trade market for cornerbacks suggests they won’t find an offer worth accepting. The expectation should be for Lattimore to lead the corners again in 2024. We’ll see if that changes.

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