TRIAL BY FIRE: Saints Giving Rookie LB Zack Baun a Shot to Make Immediate Impact

Photo Credit: Michael C. Hebert / New Orleans Saints on Twitter

“Trial by fire”. It’s a common term often used to describe one’s abilities to perform well under pressure. In the case of 1st year rookie players in the National Football League specifically, it’s a phrase often associated with a team whose coaching staff has put their complete confidence and faith in a young man’s ability, to potentially see game action in the very early part of his professional career.

As the New Orleans Saints begin preparing for the start of their 2020 NFL Season in just one month from now, there are a few players whom they drafted earlier this year who fit that description — and earlier today as the team practiced in full pads and began hitting each other for the first time this Summer — it became clearly evident that one of those young men is 3rd Round draft pick Zack Baun.

As noted by NewOrleans.Football writer / analyst Nick Underhill, the 23-year old rookie out of the University of Wisconsin is already seeing significant playing time with the 1st Team starting defensive unit right out of the gate, as the Saints defensive coaching staff evaluates just how ready the former consensus All-American is to make an immediate impact at the “Sam” / strong-side linebacker position in their 4-3 scheme.

Underhill observed that the defensive staff led by coordinator Dennis Allen, had the talented youngster working within their base sets alongside “Will” / weakside (and All-Pro) LB Demario Davis and “Mike” / middle linebacker Alex Anzalone throughout most of the entire 90-minute practice session; and he performed well, particularly when he rushed the passer off the outside edge and while playing in space in pass coverage.

Baun had one play where he stood out in coverage and batted down a pass intended for veteran RB / WR Ty Montgomery, but still showed that he has much to learn despite his immense talent; after he got beat in coverage on an underneath route later near the end of the session.

Nevertheless, it was an encouraging day for Baun, whom the Saints traded their 3rd Round pick (#88 overall) as well as another 3rd Round pick in next year’s 2021 NFL Draft, to the Cleveland Browns — in order to move up 14 spots to the #74 overall selection this past April, to nab the 6-foot-3, 235 pound sensation — who arguably was a potential 1st Round pick before he fell down the Draft Board.

Photo Credit: Michael C. Hebert / New Orleans Saints on Twitter

After today’s practice, Saints head coach Sean Payton noted how well the young West Bend, Wisconsin native looked in his first meaningful on-field action as a rookie playing alongside several well-seasoned veteran players.

“Look, I think he stepped in and had a good practice today. I think obviously there’s a learning curve, but I think he’s handled it so far, pretty cleanly”, Payton said.

Baun also earned initial praise from the Black and Gold’s defensive leader, 10th-year veteran defensive end Cam Jordan, who in an exclusive one-on-one interview with the Saints official website’s beat writer John DeShazier, said the impressive youngster was fully experiencing the previously-mentioned “trial by fire”.

QUESTION (John DeShazier, What are your impressions seeing Zack Baun on the field? It looks like they’re throwing him in and not taking the training wheels off right away on him. How has he stood out to you for better and for worse?

(Cam Jordan): “I feel like there’s a very double D (loaded) question (laughter). I could not tell you what he’s doing in terms of his drops. But I know that you know, our team clearly you know, DA (Dennis Allen and) our linebackers coach (Michael Hodges) clearly has confidence in him.”

“And what better way than throw him in trial by fire and throw him against the ones. He gets heavy rotation in and we’re just trying to see how fast he can form to our defense. I think that’s something that will tell beyond the first day of pads. Everybody looks fast right now. That’s all I got.”

The compliments from both Payton and Jordan are a clear-cut indication of just how much confidence that the organization has in Baun’s capabilities, and it goes without saying that they had to be absolutely thrilled with the fact that they were able to land a 1st Team consensus All-American linebacker — who should have easily been a Top 25 pick in the Draft — at the point (74th overall) that they eventually were able to do.

Photo Credit: Michael C. Hebert / New Orleans Saints on Twitter

Presumably Baun fell down to the 3rd Round because some teams were worried about a drug test which come back positive for a diluted sample at the NFL Scouting Combine in late February, which Baun attributed to drinking too much water for the initial weigh-in.

Despite that, the Saints front office brass took Baun at his word and literally had to be stunned after they realized that one of college football’s very best and premier linebackers of the past few years, was actually still available.

Baun’s biggest impact at Wisconsin was his capability to rush the passer, and as a fifth-year senior with the Badgers program in 2019 recorded 12½ sacks and 19½ tackles for loss; while earning those consensus 1st-team All American honors. Baun played in a total of 25 games as a starter for the Badgers and had 78 tackles, as well as one interception, 3 PBU’s (pass break-ups), one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.

Today’s first full-contact practice seemingly would indicate that the Black and Gold definitely have high expectations for Baun; and it’s expected that he’ll likely see even more extensive playing time going forward.

The organization’s eventual goal for him in due time, is to become the unquestioned leader of the linebacker corps after Demario Davis is gone, for what they hope at least will be for the majority of this new decade and possibly beyond.

Based on today’s events, Zack Baun is well on his way already to achieving that task — and is poised to make an immediate impact for the Saints defense, even if it it has to happen first through a “trial by fire”…. 

Barry Hirstius is a semi-retired journalist, who has worked previously as a sports editor and columnist. Barry is a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the Saints while attending their games as a young boy during the early 1970’s, uptown at the old Tulane Stadium. He is also the proud Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity. Follow him on Twitter: @BarryHirstius

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