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The Stephone Anthony experiment has thus far been a failure. That’s not to say that Anthony will never make it as an NFL starter, as he has athleticism and potential to be a perennial Pro Bowler. In 2016, though, he was relegated primarily to the bench.
Seven-year NFL veteran James Laurinaitis was brought in last offseason to help fix the Saints’ problems at Middle Linebacker. To say he fell short of expectations would be an understatement, and Laurinaitis landed himself on Injured Reserve in the beginning of November.
It was surprisingly two other less-flashy acquisitions that really stood out for the Saints linebacking corps: Craig Robertson and Nate Stupar. Robertson started a career-high 15 games and finished the season with a career-best 70 total tackles (also adding in an interception). Stupar also started in a career-high total of games (only 6), contributing primarily on special teams, but adding his first career interception on an incredibly athletic catch on the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson.
Dannell Ellerbe, as the story goes, played well in limited action, but battled injuries all season, playing in only 8 games in the season.
This offseason, the Saints signed A.J. Klein out of Carolina, the former backup to All World LB Luke Kuechly, who the Saints saw in limited action last year when he entered the game versus New Orleans after Kuechly left due to injury. The Saints also signed former Notre Dame standout and Heisman candidate Manti Te’o and drafted the oft-injured Alex Anzalone out of Florida in the 3rd Round of the 2017 NFL Draft.
So here’s why they’re better in 2017:
Depth is going to be key for the Saints at Linebacker this season. What was previously a shallow position for the Saints, all three Linebacker positions have multiple players that could compete for a starting job.
In an ideal world, the starting three Linebackers for the Saints in 2017 would be Stephon Anthony on the Strong Side, A.J. Klein in the Middle, and Dannell Ellerbe on the Weak Side. If Anthony doesn’t take the strides we all hope and expect, than expect Craig Robertson to see more time there. Robertson or Manti Te’o could also see time in the Middle if Klein gets hurt but when Ellerbe gets hurt, Anzalone would probably get first crack on the Weak Side. This depth allows Nate Stupar to focus mostly on Special Teams, but he could play all three Linebacker positions in a pinch for added depth to the unit.
And while all of that is nice, the best thing that happened to the Saints Linebacking corps is probably something that went unnoticed by most casual fans: Saints Assistant Coach and Linebackers Coach Joe Vitt was let go, with the Saints bringing in Mike Nolan to oversee the Linebackers.
Nolan worked for Sirius Radio last year, but prior to that, was the Linebackers coach for the San Diego Chargers after working as the Defensive Coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons, Miami Dolphins and Denver Broncos from 2009-2014. While Joe Vitt was unable to help develop Anthony into the player the organization believed they were getting when they drafted him in the 1st Round in 2015, look for Mike Nolan to focus on how the Saints can best utilize the talented, young player.
If Nolan is able to push Anthony to the fullest of his potential, along with the acquisitions of Klein and Te’o, and a healthy Robertson and (cross your fingers) Ellerbe, this Saints Linebacker group might go from a weakness in 2016 to a strength in 2017.