The great thing about the NFL is that there are so many positions that every year, there is almost always at least one player who has a breakout year on every team, no matter how good or bad the team is. This is one part in a 32 part segment detailing one potential breakout player for the 2013 NFL season on each NFL team. For the New Orleans Saints, that player is outside linebacker Junior Galette.
Last season, the New Orleans Saints went 7-9 and missed the playoffs, a year after a 13-3 regular season. A lot of people blamed this on Sean Payton’s absence with a yearlong suspension, but Payton comes from an offensive background and the offense was not the problem in 2012. In fact, they ranked 3rd in the NFL in scoring behind only New England and Denver, but unlike the Patriots and the Broncos, who both earned 1st round byes, the Saints were sitting at home at the end of the regular season because of their defense. They allowed more yards than any team in NFL history and their scoring defense ranked 31st as only the Oakland Raiders allowed more points.
The first move made to change things this off-season was to fire defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. While Spagnuolo is a Super Bowl winning defensive coordinator, winning a ring in 2007 with the Giants, his scheme never really fit in New Orleans. His scheme is largely reliant on a strong defensive line and being able to get to the quarterback with 4 guys, something the Saints just didn’t have the personnel to do in 2012. In 2011, they had a league average defense under disgraced defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who is one of the most blitz happy coordinators in NFL history, sending an extra man over 50% of the time.
After firing Spagnuolo, the Saints immediately decided to wanted to switch up the defensive scheme entirely and targeted defensive coordinators with 3-4 backgrounds. This move made a lot of sense for 3 reasons. The first is simply that when you were as broken defensively as the Saints’ were in 2012, any change can’t possibly hurt. The second reason is that eventual hire Rob Ryan, while he runs a different base scheme than Williams, is very Williams esque with the amount of blitzes he calls, which, after not using a single draft pick on a pass rusher until the 6th round, the Saints will largely rely on to get pressure in 2013.
The 3rd reason is that several players in their front 7 are more natural fits for the 3-4 than the 4-3, which will help compensate for the lack of added pass rushers this off-season. Defensive end Cameron Jordan, a former 1st round pick in 2011, played in a 3-4 in college and has largely looked like a fish out of water at 4-3 end in the first 2 years of his career, playing the run well, but struggling mightily to get pressure. Martez Wilson was a collegiate linebacker and will benefit from moving back to the linebacker position next year, after an attempt to convert to the defensive line in 2012.
They also added Victor Butler, an underrated pass rusher and a natural 3-4 fit who follows Rob Ryan from Dallas. However, the #1 player who figures to benefit from the scheme change is Junior Galette, who will play rush linebacker this season. For that reason, he, and not Cameron Jordan or Victor Butler, gets this write up. Though I think Jordan and Butler both have career best years, Galette should lead this team in sacks.
Galette came to the Saints as an undrafted free agent from Division-II Stillman and did well to even make the roster as a rookie. He barely played as a rookie, as could be expected, but in 2011, he earned a bigger role as a situational pass rusher on a struggling defensive line, especially down the stretch. Overall, he graded out as an above average pass rusher on ProFootballFocus and really shined down the stretch when given more playing time. In his final 10 games of the season, including playoffs, he managed 2 sacks, 8 hits, and 14 hurries on 238 pass rush snaps. Overall, he had 4 sacks, 11 hits, and 19 hurries on 339 pass rush snaps. His biggest weakness was the run, as he graded out below average as a run stuffer (and below average overall because of it), as could be expected of a 255 pound defensive lineman.
In 2012, he was expected to have a bigger role as the 3rd defensive end behind Cameron Jordan and Will Smith, both coming off of rough 2011s rushing the passer. However, because he missed 4 games with injury, he actually played fewer snaps than he did in 2011, playing just 301 snaps. 225 of these snaps were rushing the passer, but he managed an impressive 5 sacks, 6 hits, and 19 hurries on them.
Among 4-3 defensive ends who played as many snaps as he did, only Brandon Graham, Cameron Wake, and Charles Johnson had higher pass rush efficiencies (sacks + .75 hits + .75 hurries/pass rush snaps). While he still struggled against the run (part of the reason why he didn’t get more playing time), he graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 19th ranked overall 4-3 defensive end, 14th ranked overall in terms of pass rush grade.
With the Saints moving to a 3-4, it gives Galette his best chance ever to earn a starting job and serious playing time. As a 3-4 rush linebacker, his lack of size and ability against the run won’t be as big of an issue and his natural pass rush ability will be allowed to shine. Assuming he beats out 3-4 misfit Will Smith for the starting job opposite Victor Butler, Galette should have a breakout year. He could easily have double digit sacks if he plays enough snaps. If he did that, he’d be the first Saints player to do so since 2009. The Saints obviously believe in him, locking him up to a 3 year deal this off-season after originally slapping a 2nd round tender on him as a restricted free agent. Given that the deal is worth less than 2 million per year, the Saints figure to be rewarded for their foresight.