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In the summer before the 2015 NFL regular season, the New Orleans Saints released troubled Linebacker Junior Galette. This left the oft-injured Dannell Ellerbe and two 2015 NFL Draft picks in Stephone Anthony and Hau-oli Kikaha as the starting linebackers.
Ellerbe playing surprisingly well to start 2015 before missing the final two-thirds of the season due to injury. Anthony was the lone consistent bright spot of the group, leading the Saints defense with 112 combined tackles. Anthony also added 1 sack, 2 forced fumbles, and was the first player in NFL history to return a blocked extra point for two-points the other way. Anthony, as the Middle Linebacker, acted as the signal-caller for the Saints defense, but struggled in 2015 when asked to drop back in pass coverage.
Other Linebackers on the Saints roster in 2015 included Michael Mauti (who had a Gleason-esque punt block against the Falcons on Special Teams), David Hawthorne, Kasim Edebali, and Ramon Humber, who were all unspectacular during their playing time.
This offseason, the Saints addressed the the Linebacker position in Free Agency, with the apparent strategy to go for quantity over quality. The Saints added Nathan Stupar, Craig Robertson, and James Laurinaitis (but lost Humber and Hawthorne in free agency). With all of the depth at the position, and trying to play to each player's strengths, the Saints are talking about moving Kikaha off the Linebacker position and onto the Defensive Line.
So here's why they're better in 2016:
James Laurinaitis was signed as a middle linebacker, there's no doubt about that. Whether this means the Saints shift schemes to a 3-4 (unlikely) or Stephone Anthony shifts outside (more likely), is yet to be officially announced. Laurinaitis is a veteran Quarterback of the defense who finished 2015 with 80 solo tackles (ten more than rookie Stephone Anthony).
Laurinaitis has never had less than 100 total tackles in a season, and has never missed a game in his entire career. He also brings to the Saints a high football IQ that will help the Saints make adjustments at the line of scrimmage. Like Anthony, Laurinaitis struggles at times in coverage, but is excellent against the run and in stopping yards after the catch in intermediate throws (something Anthony struggled with in 2015).
With Laurinaitis playing MLB, Anthony will be able to shift to Outside Linebacker, and removing play-calling duties from his plate should allow him to focus solely on making plays on defense. Relying on Ellerbe to play a full season would be naive, but stranger things have happened in a football season. If Ellerbe can stay healthy and replicate his pre-injury 2015 production, the Saints will have a decent trio of Linebackers in Ellerbe, Laurinaitis, and Anthony. If or when Ellerbe inevitably goes down and misses part of the 2015 season, this is where the Saints depth at the position comes into play.
Nate Stupar is a Special Teams ace who has been seeing more and more time on the defensive side of the ball. When he was signed in New Orleans, he and Head Coach Sean Payton discussed what his role would be for the Saints; yes, he would be a play-maker on Special Teams, but he would be slotted into the defensive unit as needed. Robertson is another veteran back-up who can be a serviceable starter for small spurts if injuries pop up. The Saints also still have Mauti and Edebali (the latter of which might also see time on the defensive line) carried over from last year.
The Saints have as much or more depth at Linebacker as they do at any other position in 2016. Laurinaitis should be a lateral move at MLB, but Anthony will improve the SAM Linebacker position from 2015. Hopefully Ellerbe can play a full and productive 16-game season, but the Saints are built to handle an injury or two when players have to miss brief periods of time.