The New Orleans Saints once had one of the most dominant linebacking units in the history of the NFL. The group was nicknamed "The Dome Patrol", coming together during the 1986 season, and putting fear into every offense for seven seasons. The foursome of Pat Swilling, Sam Mills, Vaughan Johnson, and Hall of Famer Rickey Jackson began their split after the '92 season, when Swilling was traded to the Detroit Lions.
Once the final member, Mills, departed after 1994, nostalgic Saints fans everywhere have looked for the emergence of the next dominant linebacking unit. New Orleans has had some fine linebackers since, to be sure, Fields, Fujita, Tubbs, Dunbar, Vilma, just to name a few. Saints linebackers as a whole, however, have struggled mightily since 2012, as the team's defense has dwelled near the bottom of the league rankings in four of the last five seasons.
As New Orleans enters their second week of training camp, we at Canal Street Chronicles continues our series of breakdowns of the team by position. Observing fans are watching an almost entirely new cast of players take the field of today's featured New Orleans unit.
(*) denotes rookie
Current Camp Roster: Craig Robertson, A.J. Klein, Stephone Anthony, Alex Anzalone*, Adam Bighill, Nate Stupar, Michael Mauti, Manti Te'o, Jonathan Walton*
Offseason Losses: Dannell Ellerbe (IR/released), Joe Vitt (LB coach)
Offseason Additions: A.J. Klein (free agent), Alex Anzalone (draft), Manti Te'o (free agent), Mike Nolan (LB coach)
The loss of Ellerbe as a player would be far greater if he could be counted on to stay on the field. His talent is undeniable, and the difference in the Saints defense was often noticeable when he was in the lineup. Unfortunately for New Orleans, that wasn't nearly often enough. Ellerbe appeared in only 15 out of a possible 32 games as a Saint. After another injury early this camp made him unavailable yet again, the team elected to designate him to injured reserve/to be released.
Craig Robertson was not considered a "high profile" free agent when the Saints signed him away from Cleveland in the offseason of 2016. The 5th-year veteran went on to be the most consistent New Orleans linebacker last season, leading the unit with 4 passes defensed and topping the entire team in tackles. He began the season on the outside, but was moved to middle linebacker prior to midseason. Robertson may be the Saints best coverage linebacker, and showed a good blitz ability when called upon. He can be a factor at any of the linebacking positions.
A.J. Klein was signed as a free agent away from division rival Carolina this past offseason. Klein spent four years as primarily a backup to middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. He has good sideline to sideline quickness, and the solid fundamentals to play any of the linebacker positions. Former 1st round pick Stephone Anthony was a 16-game starter at middle linebacker his rookie year, scoring a touchdown and setting a Saints rookie record for tackles. Anthony has terrific athletic ability, and all the physical measurables for the position. His ability to diagnose an offense, however, has been under scrutiny. That was even more evident last season, when Anthony was moved to an outside position after the team had signed James Laurinaitis.
Anthony did suffer a leg injury early in the preseason that slowed him, but was basically a non-factor in 2016 even once healthy. The addition of Nolan to the team's coaching staff might benefit Anthony the most, and it could perhaps be the last opportunity that he has with New Orleans. Te'o was a free agent addition in late spring that played under Nolan's defensive scheme in San Diego in 2015. He has struggled with injuries most of his career, including missing all but three games last season. Te'o has limited upside in what he can give to a defense, and often gets overmatched by blockers. He does have decent speed, and had his best season statistically when playing under Nolan's tutelage.
Alex Anzalone was drafted in the 3rd round this spring from Florida. He brings good size and outstanding athletic ability to the position, but did struggle with shoulder injuries earlier in his college career. Anzalone possesses the fluidity to stay with backs and tight ends in coverage, along with the speed and power to be a factor against the run game and rushing the passer. Durability concerns aside, Anzalone has the range and ability to be a three down player from any of the linebacker positions.
Adam Bighill is attempting to follow the same path as a "rookie" to the NFL as teammates Delvin Breaux and Erik Harris. Bighill was not drafted by any NFL team as a rookie in 2011, so he joined the Canadian Football League, where he was a four-time CFL All-Star before signing with the Saints at the conclusion of the 2016 season. His non-stop motor and rugged style of play have caught the attention of Saints coaches.
Nate Stupar was signed away from Atlanta prior to last season, primarily for his special teams abilities. Stupar proved himself to be a pleasant surprise on the defensive side as well, starting six games and providing insurance to a struggling Saints defense. The perception is that Stupar is athletically limited, yet he often puts himself in good positioning and shows himself to be adequate in coverage.
Michael Mauti has proven himself before to be a solid special teamer and adequate fill-in at any of the linebacker spots. Health problems shortened his 2016 season, and put his career in jeopardy. Mauti has bounced back, and has looked early in camp like a player determined to regain his roster spot. Recently signed undrafted rookie Jonathan Walton has an uphill climb to make the roster, but the former South Carolina Gamecock may turn heads because of his athletic ability.
Outlook: This linebacking corps has been completely rebuilt over the last two seasons. There is not a single LB remaining on the roster from the end of 2014, and only Anthony and Mauti remain from 2015. Nolan's addition as LB coach may prove to be the biggest free agent addition that the Saints make this season. Early observations are that this unit is faster and more aggressive than it's been in years. The lineup itself is a wide open race between four players mainly, but where they start is just as big a question.
Robertson, Klein, Anthony, and Anzalone are all capable of playing any of the 3 base linebacker positions, and all four have lined up with the 1st team at multiple spots early in camp. Even Te'o and Mauti have taken reps with the first team. The situation will likely sort itself out as the preseason progresses, as the coaching staff will certainly try multiple looks. This much is certain, the Saints linebackers have been a major liability for five seasons. The Saints need this infusion of athletic talent to come together quickly as playmakers for their defense to have success.