The New Orleans Saints made significant defensive improvements in 2017, helping propel them to an NFC South title. The Saints linebacking corps, while showing improvement, still remains perhaps the thinnest and most limited squads on the team. New Orleans added A.J. Klein and Manti Te'o as free agents a year ago, then drafted the athletic Alex Anzalone in the 3rd round to go along with Craig Robertson, perpetually among the team's leading tacklers.
Robertson again had a solid season, finishing second in tackles while adding 2 interceptions, 2 sacks, 2 fumble recoveries, and a forced fumble. Te'o had a bit of a re-birth, playing well against the run and being in on a number of big plays. Klein was what the Saints expected when signing him away from division rival Carolina; a heady and hard-nosed player with underrated athleticism.
Anzalone had little chance to prove himself, going down with a season-ending shoulder injury early in the year. His loss, coupled with a season ending injury to Klein down the stretch, exposed the lack of depth to a Saints linebacking unit that still struggled against the pass at times as well.
Over the last few seasons, New Orleans has mostly avoided the bigger names, older players, and bigger money signings in free agency, instead focusing on players in their mid-late 20's. With free agency less than a week away, we take a look at a few names that could fit perfectly into the plans of the 2018 New Orleans Saints.
Christian Jones (Chicago Bears)
4-yr. pro, 6'3 250-lbs. 27-yrs. old
Jones, a former undrafted free agent from Florida State, was the 2nd leading tackler on a Bears defense that ranked 10th overall. He is capable of playing any of the linebacker positions effectively, standing out among a talented group of linebackers in Chicago. Jones has good sideline to sideline speed and shows solid athleticism in coverage, along with the size to hold up well against the run.
Anthony Hitchens (Dallas Cowboys)
4-yr. pro, 6'1 235-lbs., 25-yrs. old
Hitchens was the 2nd leading tackler on a Cowboys defense that ranked 8th in the league. Primarily a middle linebacker, he does struggle a bit in man coverage but is solid in zone coverage. Shows good backfield recognition and excellent burst to the ball carrier in open space. Hitchens holds up well against blockers despite his size, displaying both good strength and technique.
Nigel Bradham (Philadelphia Eagles)
6-yr. pro, 6'2 241-lbs., 28-yrs. old
Bradham was the 6th rated coverage linebacker in the league in 2017, according to Pro Football Focus. He was credited with 8 passes defensed, 1 sack, 1 fumble forced, and a fumble recovery for a touchdown last season, mainly from the strong side. He does struggle a bit against the run at times. Bradham shoots gaps well and has excellent closing speed, but struggles to shed blockers at the point of attack. A key defensive piece in the Eagles championship run, the title of Super Bowl champion could possibly drive a higher asking price for this talented playmaker.
Preston Brown (Buffalo Bills)
4-yr. pro, 6'1 250-lbs., 25-yrs. old
Brown led the NFL with an incredible 144 tackles. He is a versatile every down middle linebacker who has started 62 of his team's last 64 games. Buffalo's head coach, Sean McDermott, is a former defensive coordinator at Carolina, where smart and versatile linebacker play was essential to their successful defense. The Saints have already had success with another of McDermott's former defenders (Klein), and may take a hard look at this rugged Bills defender to solidify the middle.
Tahir Whitehead (Detroit Lions)
6-yr. pro, 6'2 241-lbs., 27-yrs. old
Whitehead has been the Lions leading tackler each of the last two seasons. He can play either inside or outside, and flows well through traffic to the ball carrier. A former safety in college (Temple), Whitehead has good play recognition and the athleticism to stay with most backs and tight ends. Detroit has used a franchise tag on defensive end Ezekiel Ansah, likely allowing the versatile Whitehead onto the open market, though perhaps at a high price.
Other Options and Stay Away From
Avery Williamson (Titans) will be another big name on the market, but he struggles with tight ends in coverage, an area where the Saints are looking to improve. Zach Brown and Mason Foster (Redskins) are also possibilities, each adding athleticism to Washington's defense.
New Orleans is likely to avoid players like Derrick Johnson, Paul Posluszny, Michael Wilhoite, and Navorro Bowman, who are on the downside of their careers. It seems unlikely also, that they show interest in players like Emmanuel Lamur, Kevin Minter, or Koa Misi, who struggle in coverage, or have underperformed in their last contracts.
The Saints are counting on big things from Anzalone and Klein as they enter their second seasons in New Orleans, and hope for continued production from Robertson, as well as Te'o to provide depth. The 2018 rookie class looks deep at linebacker, so we may see the Saints address this position highly in this draft, but New Orleans will also look to free agency to bolster one of the team's thinnest positions.