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Saints 2017 Year in Review: A.J. Klein

A.J. Klein was a big free agent addition for the Saints in 2017.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Green Bay Packers Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans Saints signed A.J. Klein as a free agent last offseason, pulling the talented linebacker away from division rival Carolina Panthers. Klein had been a 5th round draft pick out of Iowa State in 2013 by Carolina, and had played well in 23 starts over four seasons with the Panthers, mostly as a replacement for middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. He stepped into the starting lineup immediately with New Orleans, starting 12 games before an injury ended his year in a late season matchup at Atlanta.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Los Angeles Rams Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Klein was a signal caller for an improved Saints defense in 2017, showing an outstanding ability to diagnose opposing offenses. He was among the team leaders in tackles at the time of his injury, including six for loss. Klein also had 2 sacks and 4 passes defensed, both career high marks, along with a forced fumble. He was a centerpiece of improved communication among a very young group of New Orleans defenders.

Carolina Panthers v New Orleans Saints Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Klein rushed the passer well when called upon to blitz. His ability to recognize and shoot through gaps in opposing blocking schemes served him well as both a pass rusher and allowed him to make big plays against the run. He also has underrated athleticism, playing well in coverage against most opposing tight ends. He reacted well to outside passes, and had the speed to limit plays to smaller gains, and also had the ability to turn and run with some backs and tight ends down the field. The Saints defense had struggled in the first two games of the 2017 season, both losses. As the season went along, the New Orleans defense improved, due to talented young players and solid leadership. A.J. Klein provided both to the team, along with the versatility to excel from both the middle linebacker and strongside positions. The Saints defensive improvement was evident with Klein in the lineup in 2017, and looks to be an even stronger unit next season.