The Legacy of the Position: Saints, Outside Linebacker
While the needs vary each year, the NFL Draft brings hope and optimism to every single franchise. Many view this hope as being for the fortunes of the franchise and in a lot of ways they are correct. New faces to the organization can spark championship dreams. But there is another kind of hope that needs to be discussed. The hope is that player lives up to the standards set before him by those who once stood in his shoes for the franchise. According to numerous reports, including Pro Football Focus, the New Orleans Saints need to solidify their outside linebackers. Let's take a look at their illustrious history of the position and the standards that have already been set.
It has been widely reported that the Saints were not a very good organization and failed to make the playoffs for the first 20 years of their existence. The same could be said of their linebacker units at the time. They always seemed to be bringing in fresh bodies, hoping for better results.
But the Saints did have some good outside linebackers at that time. One of their first was Jackie Burkett, an original Saint who was not spectacular at the pass rush but was exceptional at intercepting passes. In 1967, he picked off three passes and after a two-year stint in Dallas, picked off another four passes in 1970. He truly was an interception machine and had a real nose for the ball.
Wayne Coleman was never a great player, but in seven-and-a-half seasons with the Saints, he provided consistency with a unit that had a constantly revolving door. As an added bonus, he could play on either side of the middle linebacker, giving the Saints some strategic flexibility.
Every year, the Saints searched for the right man who could lead their defense for years to come. By 1981, they were starved for greatness but had no idea what greatness looked like. They found what they were looking for with the 51st pick in the draft, in the form of a broad-shouldered, thick-thighed phenom from Pittsburgh. From the very beginning, Rickey Jackson had that look in his eyes that every great ballplayer has, that he will own the moment, no matter what he has to give up.
He proved to be just what the doctor ordered for the Saints and quickly became known as a pass-rushing whizz, racking up eight unofficial sacks and 125 tackles in his rookie year. He would never surpass that number of tackles the rest of his career. As the years went on, he wreaked havoc in offensive backfields all across the NFL, recording six double-digit sack seasons as a Saint.
He was the first piece of the puzzle for the Saints' resurgence in the late 1980s. By 1987, when New Orleans was on the cusp of their first playoff spot for the first time ever, Rickey Jackson was joined by inside linebackers Sam Mills and Vaughan Johnson as well as left outside linebacker Pat Swilling.
Nicknamed the "Dome Patrol", these men single-handedly caused entire teams to fear the Saints, despite New Orleans never having a competent offense. In many ways, the NFL viewed the Saints as a band of four men, not 53. When quarterbacks looked past their center, they saw a tornado of humanity that was fully intent on making their lives miserable.
While Mills and Johnson patrolled the middle of the field, gobbling up any running back that dared to step in their territory, Jackson and Swilling became like daggers to a quarterback's hopes and dreams. While Swilling was never the tackling machine that Jackson was, he may have been a better pass rusher, taking the quarterback down 17 times in 1991 and earning NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors. All told, Swilling earned four Pro Bowl invitations and two All-Pro nods as a Saint. In 1992, all four went to the Pro Bowl, something no other NFL team has ever done.
The Dome Patrol was historic, but they could never overcome their lackluster offense and never won a playoff game together, each leaving New Orleans for greener pastures. Pat Swilling was the first to go, leaving for Detroit in 1993. Rickey Jackson left in 1994 where he would win the Super Bowl that had eluded them all with the San Francisco 49ers, a long-time divisional rival. Vaughan Johnson left for the Eagles in 1994 before retiring after that season. Sam Mills stuck around New Orleans for just one more year before leaving for the expansion Carolina Panthers in 1995. As of today, two members of the Dome Patrol are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Rickey Jackson and Sam Mills. Only time will tell if more members of this historic unit will enter Canton.
With the departure of Pat Swilling, the Saints knew that they needed to quickly plug the hole that he had left behind. So they replaced him with Renaldo Turnbull, a pass-rushing savant who had recorded nine sacks as a rookie in 1990. He was sensational in 1993 and fit in seamlessly with the defense, recording 13 sacks and five forced fumbles while earning a Pro Bowl invitation and was named an All-Pro. It looked like New Orleans had found the game's next great pass rusher but by 1995, they decided to switch to a 4-3 defense and subsequently demolished what was left of a great defense.
With a new defense often comes with new faces. In 1995, their first year in the 4-3 defense, the Saints welcomed Mark Fields. He proved to be a very good player for that new era in New Orleans. He recorded more than 100 tackles in three straight years between 1996 through 1998. The 1997 season was his best as he recorded 108 tackles and eight sacks. However, as was the story of his career, Fields was not invited to the Pro Bowl in 1997 or in any other year. He retired in 2000.
The next few years were rough for the Saints as they never made the playoffs and were hit hard by Hurricane Katrina. With rumors swirling that the team was seriously considering moving to San Antonio, the walls seemed to be caving in around them. The franchise needed a savior and found two in coach Sean Payton and his handpicked quarterback Drew Brees.
Together, they ignited the city and team into action as the Saints won game after game. Unlike any other big league city, New Orleans and the Saints truly felt like one entity. Together, they healed. Watching from the middle of the defense was outside linebacker Scott Fujita. While he was never a superstar like so many of his teammates, he provided consistency at the position and was on the field when the team won the Super Bowl in 2009.
Despite having a Hall of Fame caliber quarterback on their roster, the Saints went into a bit of a slump and missed the playoffs from 2014 through 2016. They had a terrific offense but could never feature a competent defense. In 2017, the team put it all together to make the playoffs. Standing in the middle of the action was outside linebacker A.J. Klein. The team reached the playoffs each year from 2017 through 2020, but could never reach the Super Bowl, suffering one heartbreaking playoff exit after another. In 2018, Klein recorded 70 tackles and two sacks while the team reached the NFC Championship Game, losing to the Rams.
The Saints were excited when they got Kwon Alexander in the middle of 2020. When healthy, the man can have a real nose for the ball. He showed promise in his first half-year, recording 27 tackles in just seven games. After recording 50 tackles and 3.5 sacks in 2021, the team's first year without Brees, Kwon Alexander left for the Jets.
Here is where we stand. The Saints are still very much in a transition period after losing both Drew Brees and Sean Payton to retirement. They missed the playoffs last year partly because of an inconsistent defense. So who will they draft? Will it be a quality pass rusher like Drew Sanders of Arkansas? Or will it be the speedy Nolan Smith from Georgia? We shall see this weekend.