The New Orleans Saints are just a week away from the official beginning of their 2018 training camp. The Saints defense, a major liability from 2012-16, has undergone major changes over the last few seasons. The unit as a whole had struggled, but the team's performance at linebacker was perhaps it's most glaring weakness. Often outmatched athletically, the linebacking unit as a whole was considered by many to be perhaps the worst in the NFL. Today's training camp preview has a look at some of the changes made at this position over the last couple of years, and how their performance might be a vital key to the 2018 season.
Key Losses: Michael Mauti (released), Adam Bighill (released, CFL)
Key Additions: Demario Davis (free agent, Jets)
The New Orleans defense finished last season ranked 17th in total yards and 10th in points surrendered. While a vastly improved secondary and better play up front were the primary reasons for the rise in rankings, the Saints linebacking play was still inconsistent at times. Still, improvement in this area was evident. Craig Robertson was the lone remaining starter from the 2016 defense, and he finished second in tackles after leading the team in the same category the year before. Robertson is an underrated and versatile defender capable of staying on the field in every situation. Although he does get caught out of position against the run at times, he was the Saints best coverage linebacker over the last two seasons, and led the team's linebacking unit with 2 interceptions and career high 6 passes defensed. Robertson is always around the ball, evidenced by his 2 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery. New Orleans added another defender always around the ball when they signed A.J. Klein away from division rival Carolina a year ago. The 26-yr. old Klein made the most of his first opportunity as a full time starter, and was among the team leaders in tackles before having his season cut short by injury after twelve games. A very good run defender and underrated blitzer, he tied Robertson with two sacks, tops among the team's linebackers. Klein is a capable man-to-man defender, and smart in his zone drops, although struggles at times with sideline to sideline reaction. Manti Te'o stepped up into a prominent role when injuries thinned out a linebacking corps that already had questionable depth. Although a liability in pass coverage, Te'o excelled against the run, racking up a number of big stops during the course of the year. He played all 16 games for the first time in his five year career, and will bolster depth and stability as he enters the final year of his contract. Nate Stupar returns to the team after missing all but four contests last year with injury. A special teams standout, Stupar also adds versatile depth to the defense with starting experience and the ability to play either inside or outside.
New Orleans used the second of it's three 3rd round picks, 76th overall, last spring to draft Florida linebacker Alex Anzalone. After winning a starting job in training camp, Anzalone appeared lost at times in the first couple games before looking like he could round into a potential star. Unfortunately, his season was ended after just four games due to a shoulder injury that plagued his collegiate career. Anzalone's injury history is a big concern to Saints fans, but he has the athleticism and instincts to be an every down player and possible defensive cornerstone. New Orleans signed Jayrone Elliott to a futures contract away from the Dallas Cowboys early into the offseason. The 26-yr. old Elliott had 3 sacks and an interception in 2015 with Green Bay, and totaled 47 tackles in three seasons there, as he tries to make a mark as a situational pass rusher. Undrafted college free agents Colton Jumper and KeShun Freeman will compete for snaps as well, hoping a standout performance will earn them a roster spot.
One of the Saints' biggest offseason moves was the free agent signing of linebacker Demario Davis from the New York Jets. The 29-yr old Davis is coming off a career high 5 sacks and over 130 tackles in 2017, has 13.5 career sacks and has had over 100 tackles in four of the last five seasons. He is a fearsome tackler with tremendous speed and excellent play recognition, capable of playing the run or pass equally well. Linebacker coach Mike Nolan, whose hiring prior to 2017 made a major difference to the entire defense, has a versatile and athletic linebacking unit. Davis, Robertson, Anzalone, and Klein are all capable of playing any of the inside or outside positions, and have the ability to stay on the field in every game situation. The Saints linebackers are no longer overmatched physically, and were diagnosing opposing offenses well last season, even before the addition of Davis. The improvement of the New Orleans secondary and defensive line were primary reasons for the Saints defensive rise in 2017. Now a fast and physical linebacker group has the opportunity to make the 2018 New Orleans defense into an elite unit.
Who will be the Saints best linebacker in 2018?
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