It’s been a while since the New Orleans Saints have employed a linebacker group they could label as a “strength” on the roster. The last time was probably in 2009 when Scott Fujita, Jonathan Vilma, and Scott Shanle held the starting roles. While this wasn’t an elite group, each player was reliable and fundamentally sound, and all were respected team leaders.
After nearly a decade of steadily declining linebacker play, the Saints completely overhauled the position in 2017. During free agency, New Orleans added veteran linebackers A.J. Klein and Manti Te’o. Additionally, they drafted Alex Anzalone, a versatile threat capable of playing any of the three linebacker spots. Although Anzalone was injured in week four, backup Craig Robertson filled in admirably and Klein and Te’o became key components of the NFL’s tenth-ranked scoring defense.
Despite the overall upgrade at linebacker in 2017, the linebackers still have room for improvement. New Orleans further bolstered the group by signing Demario Davis, who led the NFL in solo tackles last season. The Saints haven’t had this much talent at linebacker in nearly a decade, but questions still remain over who will start where, and which starter from last season could see a reduced role.
New Orleans Saints 2018 Linebacker Breakdown
Davis was drafted by the New York Jets in 2012 but didn’t break out until last season. Along with his team-leading 97 tackles, Davis recorded five sacks and broke up three passes. On tape, Davis shows excellent range and instincts against the run. However, he’s always struggled in coverage. Last season Davis improved in this area, but the Jets still frequently sent him after the passer instead of dropping him into coverage.
At this point, Davis appears to be the clear favorite for the MIKE linebacker role. Davis has the most experience in this spot and his $8 million/year contract indicates he’s poised for the biggest role. He’ll face competition from Klein and Te’o who played MIKE last season, but Davis is the best overall athlete of the three and is coming off a great season.
Klein has become a polarizing figure among media and Saints fans alike. On one hand, Pro Football Focus gave Klein a 36.8 grade for his 2017 play. This was one of the lowest scores assigned, and Klein ranked out as the 80th best linebacker in the league. Bleacher Report hasn’t been too kind in their assessment of Klein either. He’s even been the subject of trade rumors despite signing a four-year contract last year.
Klein had perhaps the most challenging Saints defensive role last season. He started at SAM linebacker in the base defense and moved to MIKE in nickel formations while relaying play calls and coordinating a young, inexperienced defense. Some of the mistakes he made in coverage appeared to be his attempt to pick up a teammate’s missed assignment.
Klein leaves something to be desired in terms of athleticism. He doesn’t possess top-end speed and he’s slow to change direction at times. Nevertheless, Klein is a smart player and a solid tackler who was voted defensive captain last year despite being a newcomer. With Davis likely to win the MIKE role, Klein seems destined for SAM linebacker. Maybe we’ll see him thrive in 2018 with a less demanding role.
Anzalone only appeared in four games last season but showed potential to become a career starter in the NFL. Naturally, Anzalone is still raw and made mistakes while adjusting the pro level. However, he displayed the range and speed New Orleans has been desperately seeking at linebacker. He represents the new wave of light but versatile linebackers becoming more prominent in today’s NFL.
The biggest concern for Anzalone, aside from the learning curve he still faces, is durability. Anzalone never played a full season in college and that trend has followed him into the NFL. The Saints were surely aware of Anzalone’s injury history when they selected him and saw enough potential to draft him anyway. Anzalone is a great fit for the weakside linebacker and he should remain a starter there as long as he’s healthy.
Te’o has been an outstanding run defender throughout his career and the Saints got exactly that last season. He made a team-leading eight tackles for losses and racked up 62 total tackles in a limited role. Te’o also held his own when filling in for the injured Klein.
With that said, Te’o seems most likely to be bumped from the starting lineup. He was adequate in coverage last year while filling in for Klein, but there’s a reason why he was rarely on the field in passing situations when Klein was healthy. Te’o should still see plenty of playing time in 2018 though. New Orleans won’t let Te’o’s skill set go to waste and will likely sub him in on early downs and short yardage situations where he excels.
Robertson feels like the forgotten man in the linebacker room despite being a crucial member of the defense in the last two years. In 2016, he started at MIKE linebacker and was one of the few bright spots on the league’s second-worst scoring defense. Last year, Robertson had some great moments while filling in for Anzalone, especially down the stretch. Unless Robertson has an outstanding camp or preseason though, he will serve as a valuable backup that can play any of the three linebacker spots.
Nate Stupar is another source of confidence for the Saints linebacker depth. While Stupar is known for his special teams play, he’s impressed while filling in at SAM linebacker. In 2016, Stupar recorded a sack and an interception with two forced and recovered fumbles in six starts.
New Orleans passed on drafting a linebacker in April, but they added speedy undrafted rookies Colton Jumper and KeShun Freeman. Jumper played MIKE linebacker in college, making 55 total tackles (10 for losses) and 4.5 sacks as a senior. Freeman played more of a hybrid outside linebacker/edge rusher role and totaled 20.5 tackles for losses and eight sacks as a four-year starter at Georgia Tech.
Jumper and Freeman are long shots to make the roster as the six aforementioned linebackers are all likely to earn roster spots. Both players are raw talent prospects at this point but solid practice squad candidates.
Free agent signee Jayron Elliott also faces an uphill battle for a roster spot. Elliott made a handful of impact plays in three seasons with the Green Bay Packers despite limited playing time. However, Elliott spent 2017 out of football after missing the Dallas Cowboys roster. Elliott needs a strong preseason to simply keep his NFL career alive.
Last season the Saints made huge strides at linebacker, but there was still a problem with the unit. They needed a rangy athlete with the speed to chase down backs on outside runs and rush the passer. Demario Davis checks both of these boxes and he brings proven production to New Orleans. The sky is the limit for Anzalone if he can pick up where he left off and avoid injuries. Despite the criticism, Klein proved his worth last season and is a better fit as the SAM linebacker.
Coverage ability is still a mild concern for this group. There’s no clear candidate in this group to cover the league’s more athletic tight ends. To counter that, the Saints could utilize three-safety packages to handle these matchups like in the past. Kurt Coleman was likely signed to play a hybrid safety/linebacker role near the line of scrimmage, similar to Kenny Vaccaro in recent years.
While the starting linebacker group is poised to turn heads in 2018, the Saints also possess excellent depth with Te’o, Robertson, and Stupar returning. For the first time in nearly a decade, linebacker may finally be a position of strength again in New Orleans.
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