Saints hoping "new blood" reinvigorates linebacker group

METAIRIE, La. (AP) When linebacker A.J. Klein joined the Saints this offseason, he wasn't keenly aware of the problems New Orleans had on defense during the past few seasons and remains uninterested in revisiting it.

''I really didn't look into numbers. I didn't look into what's happened in the past,'' Klein said after a minicamp practice on Wednesday. ''Right now I'm focused on the future, focused on building on what we have.''

And what the Saints have in their linebacker room looks considerably different than this time a year ago, when New Orleans was planning on 2016 free-agent signing James Laurinaitis taking over at middle linebacker, only to wind up releasing him less than halfway into last season.

After signing Klein, the Saints also added free agent Manti Te'o and used a third-round draft choice on Alex Anzalone out of Florida.

The new players joined a linebacker group that includes returning starters Dannell Ellerbe and Craig Robertson, along with Nate Stupar, who served mostly as a reserve and special teams stalwart last season.

Also back is 2015 late first-round draft pick Stephone Anthony, who is trying to bounce back from a season that saw his playing time diminished.

They all have a new position coach in Mike Nolan, who has taken over for Joe Vitt.

Last season, the Saints' defense ranked 27th in yards allowed, which actually represented an improvement over the previous two seasons, when the unit ranked 31st. Although the linebackers weren't the only defensive players who struggled, that was an area the Saints evidently targeted for improvement.

''It just seems like it's a new room. There's a lot of new faces and the old faces- everybody's just trying to get a feel for each other,'' said Te'o, whose work has been limited while he continues his comeback from a torn Achilles.

''We're all hanging out. We're all working out together. We're all competing and when the pads come on, that's going to be the biggest tell for everybody.''

Nolan's hope is that an injection of new players in the linebacker group will raise the level of play across that position group. He also has emphasized versatility, seeing what all the linebackers can do at various inside and outside spots.

''We're rotating all those guys,'' Nolan said. ''All the guys see it as a real competitive position and that's a good thing - and I think it's legit.

''The fact that A.J. and Manti and even Alex Anzalone, the rookie, have been added to the group, the veterans in Craig and Nate and Anthony and all those guys, I think they feel it. But they should feel it. Everyone should feel it. That's how you get better. Whoever starts, starts. But I think it's a good group if we can just stay healthy.''

Nolan, whose father, Dick, served as Saints head coach from 1978 to 1980, has been coaching in the NFL since 1987 and attained his first job as a defensive coordinator with the New York Giants in 1993. He spent four seasons as head coach in San Francisco from 2005-2008.

''From a confidence standpoint, obviously you feel like you can help,'' Nolan said. ''I was a coordinator for 17 years and we had some really good years.''

Dennis Allen, New Orleans' current defensive coordinator, said Nolan has brought fresh ideas.

''There's some terminology things, things that he does in teaching the linebackers that, you know, when I hear it I'm like, `I haven't heard it that way,' but it makes sense,'' Allen said.

''You can get into situations when you've been doing it for a while you kind of get stuck in that routine and you're kind of doing the same thing,'' Allen added.

''When you bring some new blood into the organization, it kind of opens your eyes maybe to some different things.''

Klein said he has been working mostly at the middle and strong-side linebacker spots, but also is trying to learn the weak side in a defense that is expected to deploy a 4-3 alignment (four linemen, three linebackers) in running situations.

Te'o, who generally has played in the middle, said he's eager to play at either outside spot as well.

Robertson, who took over as starting middle linebacker last season, has been working primarily in the middle and weak side.

Robertson said what he did last year, ''doesn't matter.''

''It's a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league and you've got to show that you're a better player than what you were last year,'' Robertson said. ''You can't look back at last year. ... It's all about now.''

Notes: Saints center Max Unger said his goal is to be starting in Week 1 of the regular season after having foot surgery this offseason. Unger is not currently practicing and was wearing a walking boot in the locker room as he continues his rehabilitation. ...

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