Is the end of the line in sight for Zack Baun and the New Orleans Saints? Nothing from him or head coach Dennis Allen would suggest that — they’ve been busier joking about cheese curds in post-practice press conferences than sharing much insight on his role with the team — so I’m hesitant to go too far down this rabbit hole, but something’s not right here.
With Pete Werner sidelined by a groin injury, it’s been free agents signed off the street like Eric Wilson and Jon Bostic who are getting first-team snaps next to Demario Davis, not Baun. That’s hardly what you’d expect to see from a former third-round draft pick who the Saints traded up for.
Instead, Baun has been running with the special teams units, and to his credit making some big plays covering punts and kickoffs. That’s one area he’s excelled in New Orleans. He did lead the team in special teams snaps played last year, getting on the field for return and coverage units as well as the field goal block squad. It just isn’t what was expected of him. To be fair, those initial expectations never made much sense.
The Saints spent a 2021 third rounder to move up from No. 88 and pick Baun at No. 74 overall in the 2020 NFL draft; before that, he was an undersized pass-rush specialist with the Wisconsin Badgers who starred in multiple sports as a recruit out of the Milwaukee suburbs. When New Orleans called his name on draft day, they made the curious decision to convert him from his college role as an edge rusher to an off-ball linebacker. We’re three years into that project without much to say about it. If anything, it’s been a lesson in putting players in a position to use their strengths.
Baun was in and out of practice during the week leading up to New Orleans’ first preseason game with a hamstring injury, but it’s behind him now and he participated fully in both of their joint practices with the Packers in Green Bay. Playing in front of a friendly home crowd has to be good for his confidence, but the Saints need real results from the third-year pro.
And that brings us back to the point. Is Baun going to suddenly flip the switch and become a force player running alongside Davis? Likely not. The Saints haven’t shown much interest, if any, in letting him rush the passer like he did at Wisconsin (it doesn’t help that he’s about 50 pounds underweight for their prototype at defensive end, assuming everything’s accurate on their online roster). If his ceiling in New Orleans is a career special teamer, fine, but that’s disappointing for a former top-75 selection — though maybe the Saints are comfortable with that outcome. That’s what their words and actions show us, anyway.
There’s a very real chance this turns into a Rob Ninkovich situation where Baun goes to a new team and thrives because they’re letting him do what he does best and rush the passer, rather than line up off the ball and try to cover and learn new run fits. If the Saints aren’t happy with Baun’s progress in learning those new skills, why not let him try something he’s better at? And if they won’t do that, why don’t they stop wasting everyone’s time and trade him somewhere else?
Why not see if another team is interested in trading for Baun and trying him out in a pass-rush role? Find another team that uses more odd fronts and undersized edge rushers than New Orleans and roll the dice. Maybe you could get a draft pick out of it, or a player at a position of greater need. If Baun isn’t going to get into the lineup any time soon with the Saints and likely leave in a year as a free agent, it could be better to write things off as a loss, get some compensation, and let him pursue another opportunity.
So here’s the counterpoint. At best, the Saints could hope to recoup a draft that’s significantly less valuable than what they invested in Baun in the first place. Recently, the Miami Dolphins traded former second round selection Adam Shaheen and a seventh round pick for a future sixth rounder (though that deal was nullified by Shaheen’s failed physical), and the Las Vegas Raiders traded their 2021 fourth-round pick, Tyree Gillespie, for a conditional seventh rounder in 2024. The New England Patriots swapped 2019 first rounder N’Keal Harry for a 2024 seventh-round choice, too. The trade market just isn’t very active right now, but like Baun most of the players being moved are former high-round draftees who didn’t meet expectations.
What about a player-for-player trade? In that case, you’re looking at something like the Philadelphia Eagles-Seattle Seahawks swap, which saw J.J. Arcega-Whiteside (an Eagles second-round pick in 2019) exchanged for Ugo Amadi (a Seahawks 2019 fourth rounder), straight up. That’s basically sending out a backup and getting the same in return. Is it worth punting on Baun’s career if this is all you’re getting back?
Probably not. There’s still time for Baun to elbow his way into the lineup on defense, and there’s a lot to be said for making a career out of your efforts on special teams. It’s not ideal, but few things are. I’d rather keep giving Baun opportunities to justify the high draft pick the team spent on him than part ways prematurely and get next to nothing in return. Giving up on him to recoup a late-round draft pick two years from now or a player likely to be cut in a few weeks isn’t worth it. Let’s see if they agree.