It’s no secret that the New Orleans Saints have struggled to field a good linebacker group. Fans and opposing team know it’s a key weakness of the defense, with tight ends and running backs running free for a couple of years now.
Finally, it seemed like the Saints themselves realized how bare the linebackers room had gotten. Longtime coach Joe Vitt was released from his contract and replaced with Mike Nolan. There has been a ton of turnover on the roster over the last two years under defensive coordinator Dennis Allen’s watch.
Let’s compare this year’s projected top linebackers to, say, the very mediocre 2014 group in age and 40-yard dash times. The 2014 linebackers featured a top four (Parys Haralson, David Hawthorne, Curtis Lofton, and Ramon Humber) who were each 27-years old or older, and all but Hawthorne timed at 4.79-seconds or slower. That’s not a recipe for success.
In 2017, we’re staring down the barrel of a unit that includes just two linebackers aged 27-years or older (Craig Robertson at 29, Dannell Ellerbe at 32) and just one member who timed slower than 4.6-seconds in the 40-yard dash (Robertson at 4.76). Age and speed aren’t everything in the NFL, but they’re vital measurements for linebackers whose job is to:
A.) see the ball,
B.) get the ball.
Last year, veteran linebackers Craig Robertson (formerly with the Cleveland Browns) and Nate Stupar (who left the Atlanta Falcons just in time to avoid an epic Super Bowl LI meltdown) joined the squad and stuck around, with Robertson winning a war of attrition to enter the starting lineup. James Laurinaitis (a career Los Angeles Rams starter) was signed to much fanfare but just couldn’t run with NFL offenses anymore.
Change has continued this year, with a new middle linebacker signed in Carolina Panthers reserve A.J. Klein. The team spent a third round pick on Florida Gators rookie Alex Anzalone, and Canadian import Adam Bighill has already picked up a strong fan following. One-time Heisman Trophy hopeful Manti Te’o left the San Diego Chargers (who themselves left for Los Angeles) to follow his linebackers coach to New Orleans.
Sure, there’s still some familiar faces. Dannell Ellerbe is (predictably) injured ahead of training camp, but he wouldn’t free up meaningful salary cap space if released and has proven to be the team’s best option at the weakside spot before. Stephone Anthony is at a crossroads in the third year of his career, and has to prove whether he was worth a first round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft.
So where are we now? Robertson was a starter last year, but that wasn’t the plan. Limiting his reps to your third linebacker in base defenses could allow him to knife through gaps and disrupt in the backfield; four of Robertson’s six tackles for loss last year came in the first three weeks before he was moved to middle linebacker, where he was out of position.
Based off minicamp reports, Klein and Anzalone are getting the lion’s share of looks in nickel defenses, and that might be your best pairing in most situations. Klein and Anzalone are both quick to make their reads off of the line and hustle to the ball, and can be trusted not to be liabilities in their zones.
Ellerbe seemed to find his niche as a third-down weapon, showing legit bend around the edge as a blitzing pass rusher and bagging four sacks. That’s an almost-exotic look that Dennis Allen is sure to roll out again whenever Ellerbe is available.
Stupar is a very good depth linebacker and special teams leader, who has shown the lateral quickness to match up with talented running backs like Devonta Freeman on occasion. That said, he’s probably your fourth option at best and could be exposed if put under too big of a spotlight.
So what about Anthony? He’s really a wild card. If Nolan can find any kind of a spark with him it changes the defense. Anthony is the only guy who can run a sub 4.6-second 40-yard dash and has rare size for the position. He’s just been too slow to diagnose the play and react to what’s happening in front of him.
It’s too soon to say what will happen with this group. There’s been a lot of chatter around Manti Te’o and the many weaknesses in his game (as well as his proneness to injury), but he’s not a lock to make the roster. His contract carries just a few hundred thousand dollars in guarantees, which is pennies in the NFL. If Anzalone, Anthony, or someone else shows they can be a viable backup to Klein at middle linebacker, Te’o won’t have a spot.
However, we shouldn’t sleep on Adam Bighill. He’s a violent presence despite his shorter size, and compares favorably to London Fletcher as an undersized linebacker from a small program who worked his way into a long career. I look forward to seeing what Bighill and all the other Saints linebackers are capable of in training camp.