The New Orleans Saints had arguably the worst linebacker play in the league from 2012-2016. Too often, coaches and fans would see a Saints linebacker beaten badly down the field or to the edge, or woefully out of position, often creating big plays for the opposition. Opposing tight ends and running backs would run amok through the New Orleans defense, with the linebacking corps often helpless to slow them down. Coach Sean Payton made a difficult personal decision after the 2016 season, moving on from longtime friend and linebackers coach Joe Vitt and replacing him with experienced defensive guru Mike Nolan. The difference in the play of the unit as a whole was immediately noticeable. The Saints linebackers, while still not a dynamic group, played much better football in 2017. Last season, the position took another big step, being arguably the most improved unit on the entire team. New Orleans benefited last year from one of the league's most underrated free agent signings, as well as a return from injury by a highly regarded draft pick from the previous year. With training camp just a couple days away from it's official start, we preview the Saints most improved unit from a year ago.
Newcomer to watch:
The Saints signed linebacker Demario Davis to a three year contract away from the New York Jets last offseason in what turned out to be one of the biggest free agency additions throughout the league. Davis, a seven year veteran, not only turned in his sixth straight season with at least 89 tackles (110 total), but added an element of speed and aggressiveness to the unit and quickly blossomed into a leader for the entire defense. He matched his career high in sacks (5), and added 11 tackles for loss, 2 forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, and was credited with 4 passes defensed. The 6'2 248-lb. Davis can skillfully play any of linebacker spots, and is a sideline to sideline menace for opposing offenses. He has the athleticism to cover backs, tight ends, or even some receivers down the field as well as bursting into the offensive backfield to make a play. Davis shows excellent play recognition, and fires through gaps to stop ball carriers in their tracks.
Alex Anzalone rebounded from an injury shortened rookie season in 2017 to show why the Saints invested a 3rd round draft choice in him last year. Anzalone, who turns 25 in September, was limited to just four games his rookie year due to a shoulder injury, but carved out an important role in the Saints defense last year. Anzalone has excellent athleticism, and at 6'3 241-lbs. possesses the size, strength, and versatility to play all of the linebacking spots as well. He matches up well in man coverage, and is fluid in his zone drops and recognition. He pursues ball carriers well, and has tremendous burst into the backfield. Anzalone and Davis are both every down linebackers with the skill and versatility to make plays all over the field, and are a formidable tandem against opposing offenses.
A.J. Klein enters his third season with New Orleans after spending his first four years with division rival Carolina. He had a career high 70 tackles (7 for loss)in 2018, third on the team, and added 2 fumble recoveries, an interception, and 2 sacks. Klein, who turns 28 later this month, may not have the raw athleticism of Davis or Anzalone, but has a good feel for opposing offenses and is always around the ball. The 6'1 240-lb. Klein packs a punch as hitter, flows well to the play, and can also play either inside or outside.
Craig Robertson is the elder statesman of the Saints linebacking unit at 31-yrs. old, and also it's longest tenured entering his fourth season with the team. A starter in 2016 and 2017, Robertson now provides quality depth at either inside or outside, and is one of the team's best special teams players. A bit undersized at 6'1 234, Robertson has good open field agility and particularly excels in coverage. An experienced vet who knows the defense well, coaches know that Robertson is capable of stepping in as a starter with little dropoff.
Vince Biegel was signed by New Orleans early last season after being cut in training camp by Green Bay. A fourth round draft pick by the Packers in 2017, Biegel was an accomplished linebacker at the University of Wisconsin. After a short stint on the practice squad, the Saints promoted him to the active roster, where he saw the majority of his playing time on special teams. The 6'3 246-lb. Biegel is a good athlete and has good straight line speed, traits that the team's coaches are looking to take advantage of as they were moving him around during OTA workouts in search for his best fit.
New Orleans used the 244th pick in this spring's draft (7th round) to select Idaho linebacker Kaden Elliss. Son of former Detroit Lions Pro Bowl defensive lineman Luther Elliss, Kaden plays with good upper body strength at the point of attack, and has good lateral quickness along the edge. Listed at 6'3 240-lbs., Elliss was often utilized close to the line or at rush end in college. He plays stiff off the line, and was extremely limited in coverage with the Vandals, but will have the opportunity during camp and preseason to show that he can be a versatile contributor for Nolan's unit. Undrafted rookie Porter Gustin showed the same kind of coverage limitations at U.S.C., but like Elliss consistently showed that he can be a difference maker near the line of scrimmage. The 6'5 260-lb. Gustin will get an opportunity to earn a role as a backup defensive end, but will also see snaps at linebacker this preseason.
Colton Jumper has his second opportunity to make the Saints roster this season. An undrafted free agent out of Tennessee in 2018, Jumper saw snaps at both weakside and middle spots last preseason before being one of the team's final cuts. The 6'2 229-lb. Jumper has excellent open field speed, and should see plenty of snaps this summer to carve out a role on this squad. New Orleans also signed Darnell Sankey to a futures contract at the end of the year. Sankey has bounced around on the practice squads of seven different teams since entering the league in 2016, and is hoping to make an impression on coaches for an active spot.
Once upon a time, the Saints had the most dominant group of linebackers in NFL history in the Dome Patrol, who terrorized offenses from the mid-1980's through the early 90's. While it would certainly be a stretch to compare this group to that elite unit, they did contribute mightily to the Saints defensive success last season. Demario Davis was worthy of a Pro Bowl bid, and is one of this defense's best players, while Alex Anzalone looks poised to become a star. Depth is a concern outside of Robertson, but Mike Nolan has put together a more versatile, athletic, and aggressive unit than the Saints have had in years. One worthy of a championship chase on one of the NFL's rapidly improving defenses.