The linebacking corps was absolutely the weakest link of the New Orleans Saints defense in 2017. In 2018, the group as a whole became one of the better-performing aspects of the defense. Granted, this was due in no small part to the addition of Demario Davis from the New York Jets and return of a healthy Alex Anzalone.
Still, the improvement of AJ Klein in his second year as a member of the Saints was definitely noticeable. Klein, playing in all 16 games (starting 15), matched or set career highs in interceptions (1), tackles (42), tackles for loss (7), QB hits (4), and fumble recoveries (2). Without Klein, the Saints linebackers would not have been nearly a productive unit in 2018.
AJ Klein - At a Glance
- Approximate Value: 7 (career high)
- Defensive Grade: 70.5 (29th in the league)
- Coverage Grade: 70.1 (21st)
- Run Defense: 66.9 (43rd)
- Total Snaps: 669 snaps on defense and 172 on special teams
Based on the grades you see above, Klein struggled more in defending the run than he did against the pass. Even on run plays, though, Klein was able to make plays when the team needed him.
More run game struggles. You will notice the Browns run IZ and don't get anyone onto AJ Klein (#53). Would like to think one of Bitonio/Harrison to work the double team to him. Little to nowhere to go for Hyde again. #BrownsFilmBDN pic.twitter.com/G00CsN1pRz— BrownsFilmBreakdown (@BrownsFilmBDN) September 17, 2018
Klein is a smart football player, and he uses his football IQ to make up for a lack of elite speed or play-making ability. In pass coverage, he can has just enough speed to stick with most running back. Klein makes it a point to leave himself in good position to make plays on either the ball or the ball-carrier, as evidenced by this “right place at the right time” interception against the Atlanta Falcons.
AJ Klein : 4 tackles, 1 for loss & an INT pic.twitter.com/RsZIcMt63Y— Lee Harvey (@MusikFan4Life25) November 23, 2018
With Klein’s 2019 $5 million cap hit in 2019, even with his increased productivity in 2018, it’s hard to say Klein provides value at his cost. Klein is definitely a candidate to be a cap casualty in 2019, but it’s more likely he would simply be restructured to reduce his cap hit rather than be outright cut altogether.