The New Orleans Saints’ vulnerability at linebacker is no secret. The team has bigger needs like finding a pass rusher and a couple of cornerbacks, but guys like Craig Robertson can’t be expected to play 900+ snaps out of position again in 2017. The team needs a bonafide middle linebacker, and new position coach Mike Nolan may be able to turn first round pick Stephone Anthony into that dude. But assuming Anthony will rebound in a big way - while recovering from a late-season knee injury - is a lot to ask.
Many fans want to see the Saints pursue New England Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower in free agency, which is understandable. He isn’t going to be franchise tagged by the Patriots and may see free agency if his reps balk at Bill Belichick’s price point. But Hightower’s asking price is probably too high for a position the Saints want to upgrade, but may not need to address with a large chunk of their resources.
So that’s where free agents-to-be like Gerald Hodges (San Francisco 49ers) and A.J. Klein (Carolina Panthers) come into view. The Saints need a true middle linebacker who can read and react to the offense while communicating between the front four and back seven defenders. Hightower, Hodges, and Klein have each done that, while an enticing free agent option like Zach Brown (Buffalo Bills) does the same things that Robertson and Dannell Ellerbe already do for the Saints, though at a high level.
All data obtained from the great folks at http://pro-football-reference.com/.
Of the three, Hodges best combines value and positional need for the Saints. Hightower will cost too much, while there’s questions surrounding Klein’s ability to not be a liability on nickel downs - he was benched for allowing too many big plays while filling in for Luke Keuchley last season.
Hodges (6-foot-2, 243-pounds, 26-years old) was a college teammate of current Saints linebackers Michael Mauti and Nate Stupar at Penn State, and like them he has had trouble breaking into the starting linebacker. Hodges was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings in 2013 but was buried behind better players like Chad Greenway and Anthony Barr. In 2015, the Vikings drafted Eric Kendricks and Hodges was traded to San Francisco.
Hodges has played 500+ snaps each of the last three years, serving as a backup for both the weakside linebacker (WILL) and middle linebacker (MIKE) spots, though Chip Kelly’s defensive coaching staff inexplicably benched Hodges for a stretch this year. That staff was immediately dismissed after the season, so make of their decision-making what you will.
When on the field, Hodges has consistently made his presence known. He’s a tackling machine, racking up stops on a consistent basis, and even chipping in some splash plays (three sacks, two interceptions, two pass deflections, and one forced fumble last year). Hodges plays instinctively and is usually quick to diagnose the play. He is better in pass coverage than coming downhill against the run, but he does that serviceably. His tackling form is decent and Hodges doesn’t shy away from contact. I really like his relentless energy lasting deep into the fourth quarter on some bad 49ers teams.
In the short term, Hodges could be expected to give some life to the middle linebacker position while playing at an average level and earning a middling salary similar to what Stupar and Robertson each received last spring: three years, $5-million with minimal guarantees. Taking a longer view of things, Hodges could compete with Robertson for reps at the weakside linebacker spot during Ellerbe’s injuries if a solid option at middle linebacker (please, football gods, let Stephone Anthony play good) emerges. He can play special teams, too.
Signing Hodges would hardly be flashy, but it would be a smart, low-risk addition to a roster that needs answers at key positions. The Saints should save their money for cornerbacks and pass rushers however they can get them.