All New Orleans Saints linebackers will inevitably be compared by football historians to "The Dome Patrol"; the fearsome group of Hall of Famer Rickey Jackson, Pat Swilling, Sam Mills, and Vaughn Johnson that terrorized NFL offenses from the mid-'80's through early 1990's. Living up to comparisons against one of the best linebacking units in NFL history is an impossible task, to be sure, but in recent years the New Orleans linebackers have been arguably the biggest liability on a struggling defense. They have been athletically overmatched in pass defense, consistently out of position, and unable to make game changing plays in recent seasons, often the weak link on what was at times a historically bad defense. The Saints brought in a few free agents, and used a draft choice in an attempt to upgrade the talent on an underwhelming unit. In today's postseason grades, we take a look at how well the 2017 Saints linebacking corps performed.
A.J. Klein was signed as a free agent away from division rival Carolina after having success in filling in for all three linebacking spots for the Panthers. He showed the same versatility with New Orleans, providing an upgrade at middle linebacker but also playing well at either outside position. Klein is a solid run defender and an effective blitzer, while playing adequately in pass coverage. The heady 26-yr. old Klein was lost for the season in mid-December with a sports hernia, severely hampering the Saints linebacking corps heading into the playoffs. He was among the team's leading tacklers at the time of his injury, and looks to be a key part of the New Orleans linebacking unit as they enter the 2018 season.
Alex Anzalone was added as a 3rd round pick in last spring's draft, and was an opening day starter after a solid preseason showing. Anzalone is the most athletic of the New Orleans linebackers, with the speed to stay with most backs and tight ends, as well as effective pass rush ability. He struggled with positioning and zone drops early on, then was lost for the season in week 4 with a shoulder injury. Anzalone brings exciting potential to this defense, but must overcome durability issues dating back to college in order to have a successful career.
Craig Robertson once again was the most versatile of the New Orleans linebackers. He was among the team's top tacklers, intercepted two passes and added 2 fumble recoveries and 2 sacks. Robertson was the Saints best coverage linebacker in 2017, a solid run defender, and is an underrated blitzer. Outside of Anzalone he is the Saints most athletic linebacker. He is caught out of position occasionally, but has been a key member of the Saints defense for the last two seasons.
Manti Te'o was added as an offseason free agent, and had to step into a major role following the injuries to Anzalone and Klein. Te'o was still a weakness in pass coverage, but played a big part in numerous key defensive stops during the year. He is not ideally suited to be an every down linebacker, but Te'o played above expectations, and should be a factor in the New Orleans defense next season.
Michael Mauti returned to the Saints after missing 2016 with a career threatening health condition. Mauti is a terrific special teams player that adds quality defensive depth. Adam Bighill is an undersized linebacker that made the Saints practice squad after effective seasons in the Canadian Football League. Bighill saw action mostly on special teams during the regular season, and will look to move up on the depth chart this offseason. New Orleans claimed Jonathan Freeny off of waivers from the Patriots in mid-December to provide depth down the stretch run. Freeny had a key sack in the Saints wild card victory over Carolina, and showed good pass rush potential. Nate Stupar was limited to only a few games last year. When healthy, Stupar has shown the capability to be a solid spot starter at any of the linebacking positions.
The injuries to Klein and Anzalone severely hampered a still thin linebacking unit late in the season. Robertson played outstanding football at times, and Klein was a difference maker when in the lineup. Anzalone showed the potential to be a huge upgrade, giving the Saints the athletic presence they've been lacking for years, but must stay healthy. Te'o stepped up and played well down the stretch of the year, but counting on him as an effective longterm starter would be unwise. Still the weakest unit of an improved New Orleans defense, the team will likely address this position in both free agency and the draft again this offseason.
LINEBACKER GRADE= D
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