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New Orleans Saints position outlook: Linebacker needs upgrade in 2017

The Saints had reason for optimism at linebacker heading into 2016, but now it looks to be an area that needs big attention going into the next several months.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Entering training camp, linebacker was somewhat thought of a strong area for the New Orleans Saints. Having added several key pieces in free agency coupled with the hopes that Stephone Anthony would make the second-year leap and a healthy Dannell Ellerbe had many optimistic. Unfortunately, it all just went straight to the toilet.

Our position outlook series continues for the 2017 Saints by looking at the linebacker group. Free agents, free agent targets, players set to return (including practice squad), and some potential draft options are all considered.

What the Saints are working with

  • Craig Robertson: After joining the team as Ellerbe insurance, Robertson quickly jumped into the starting conversation and eventually took over at starting middle linebacker for failed free agent James Laurinaitis. Robertson played in 15 games for the Saints and turned in 115 tackles for Dennis Allen’s defense. He did a little of everything while displaying some growing pains. Still, Robertson will play a crucial part in the successes/failures of 2017.
  • Dannell Ellerbe: Ellerbe ended up being a big force when healthy, finishing with 4.0 sacks, which was his highest sack total since 2012. However, he only played in just nine games for the Saints. In two seasons, Ellerbe has missed over half of the team’s games while playing in just 16 out of the past 48 possible contests in the past three seasons. Unfortunately, he can’t be counted on despite how he feels or what he says. It’s a shame because of some of things he’s been able to do, but now he’s really on the wrong side of 30 entering the new year.
  • Stephone Anthony: I’m not sure we’ve witnessed more of a year over year fallout than what happened with Anthony. He went from being a rookie sensation with some growth opportunity to riding the bench permanently. When he did manage to see the field other than special teams, he just looked lost. The Saints are going to have to hope new linebackers coach Mike Nolan can be a miracle worker, and don’t be so certain that Anthony is still on the team come September.
  • Nathan Stupar: He ended up being playing in all 16 games for the Saints after coming over from the Falcons, and was a familiar other half of the dynamic duo with Robertson and 3-safety sets. Stupar was big on special teams and should continue to provide depth for Dennis Allen and company in 2017.
  • Travis Feeney: He joined the team in early December after spending the majority of the season on the Steelers practice squad. As a converted safety, Feeney certainly spent 2016 learning a lot from a talented group in Pittsburgh. He’ll be one to keep an eye on.
  • Adam Bighill: There’s little to no doubt that this CFL prospect won’t get some eyeballs on him over the next six months. He’s a bit older compared to the likes of some of the former players brought in by the Saints, but Bighill was effective in six seasons with the BC Lions. Like Feeney, he’ll be someone to keep an eye on.

Free Agents

  • Sam Barrington: Barrington ended up playing in five games for the Saints towards the end of the season. He’s primarily a special teams guy, and is still searching for his mojo he had when he started for the Packers. He could return on a friendly one-year contract to see if he can make anything of himself.
  • Jason Trusnik: He was one of those journeyman veterans out there to help where needed last season, but it’s doubtful to see the soon-to-be 33-year-old returning to compete for a roster spot.
  • Michael Mauti: You hate to hear about any players having a serious condition, let alone something like ulcerative colitis. In a nutshell, it’s a chronic disease that affected Mauti’s ability to keep weight on. He was placed on injured reserve in November to treat it with surgery, and should be back on a relatively cheap deal assuming he can get back to football.

Free Agent targets

Free agency will have several appealing options for the Saints, but I believe the focus lies more in versatility.

  • Zach Brown : Clearly, Brown is in line for a lot more compensation after his great year with the Bills. Last season, he was one of my Saints targets in free agency. Brown is a strong tackler (tackle machine is probably better) who turned in a Pro Bowl season, and he could offer any defense a lot. There will clearly be a lot of suitors, but the Saints could find a spot to get Brown on the field.
  • Gerald Hodges: I've talked about Hodges previously in my free agents that should be on the Saints shopping list piece. He’s extremely underrated, and would realistically be in line for a Craig Robertson-like deal (3-year, $5 million) in free agency. He’s a Penn State alumni, so perhaps Mauti and Stupar could work some magic there to help shore up the inside competition.
  • A.J. Klein: He's a popular name associated with the Saints right now, and there's good reason. Klein is essentially the Nate Stupar from a season ago, and clearly got lost in the shuffle with Luke Kuechly playing in front of him. However, when called upon he did do some good things. Obviously, he’s not Kuechly, but fits as one of the better reserve inside options in the league.
  • Sean Spence : The former third-round pick of the 2012 draft was with the Titans last season after spending the previous two with the Steelers, serving as a backup to Wesley Woodyard and Avery Williamson. Spence has shown that he can do a little bit of everything, and could serve as depth and play on special teams. He’s a good coverage option, to say the least.

Draft possibilities

To reiterate, I'll look at what the Saints could get in the high, mid, and low value out of the NFL Draft. The draft has some very appealing prospects.

  • High - Reuben Foster: Let me be clear. The top two options for the Saints via the draft should be Foster and Zach Cunningham (Vanderbilt). An underrated option could be Houston’s Tyus Bowser. However, if I’m going to swing for the fences and get someone that can be a game changer, add speed, coverage, and give the Saints anything else that puts checks in the boxes, then I go with Foster. He can do it all.
  • Mid - Elijah Lee: The underclassman looks to be a 3rd-4th Rounder in the upcoming draft, and he’s going to need to show out at Kansas State’s pro day on March 14 after not getting a combine invite. Even despite that, Lee comes off as a pretty strong option as a coverage linebacker. He would likely need to bulk up some to see more playing time, but could easily get his foot in the door by contributing on special teams and being a nickel option.
  • Low - Hardy Nickerson: The son of a former NFL great is an intriguing player. He transferred from Cal to Illinois to play under his father in 2016. He’s said to be the spitting image of the 5-time Pro Bowler, and he certainly plays like it. The Fighting Illini’s leading tackler displays some good natural vision and has strong closing ability. At times, his size can be his biggest disadvantage when taking on bigger blockers. Still, he’s well worth a late-round consideration if he’s around and the Saints need a linebacker. Alternately, Ben Boulware could be another player to look out for.

In a nutshell

Linebacker is clearly an area of need for the Saints heading into the offseason, but the good news is that they can address the openings through both free agency and the draft. Speed and coverage are two qualities the team must gain to be better in the new season to compete. With new linebackers coach Mike Nolan leading the charge, there's reason to have optimism for the group.