Saints Offseason Preview: Linebackers
The linebackers of the New Orleans Saints were a prohibitive weakness during the team’s defensive struggles from 2014 to 16. Too often, we were witness to them surrendering a big play in a crucial moment by being caught out of position or not being able to keep up with an opposing running back or tight end. Over the past few seasons, the Saints have rebuilt the unit through smart free agent signings and a key draft pick along with superior coaching from Mike Nolan. Nolan departed at the conclusion of the year for a defensive coordinator position with the Dallas Cowboys. While filling Nolan’s spot is key to continued success, the Saints are also faced with some important personnel decisions at the position.
Free Agents: Stephone Anthony, A.J. Klein, Josh Martin, Manti Te’o
Under Contract: Kiko Alonso, Alex Anzalone, Demario Davis, Kaden Elliss, Chase Hansen, Craig Robertson
The focal point of this unit, if not the entire defense, is the 31-Yr old linebacker Demario Davis. An eight-year veteran, Davis finished his second year with New Orleans by earning his first All-Pro honor. Davis led the team with 111 tackles and was disruptive as a pass rusher (4 sacks, 15 pressures), run defender (11 tackles for loss) and being effective in coverage. He is an every down defender who is equally effective in both inside and outside positions. When injuries took a toll on the linebacker position late in the year, Davis kept the unit running efficiently with his abilities and leadership.
One reason injuries affected this position late in the year was because of an early season injury to Alex Anzalone that landed him on injured reserve after just two games. A 3rd round pick in the 2017 draft, this is the second time in Anzalone’s three seasons that a shoulder injury ended his campaign early. When in the lineup, the 25-Yr old is an explosive athlete solid in coverage and a difference maker in opposing backfields. He forced 3 fumbles, intercepted a pass, and recorded 2 sacks along with having 59 tackles during a full season of action in 2018. Anzalone, like Davis, can remain on the field in all situations.
Anzalone’s spot in the lineup was taken by veteran Kiko Alonso, who was acquired in an early season trade with the Miami Dolphins. Alonso had 31 tackles (3 for loss) and 5 quarterback pressures in 13 games of action and played well down the stretch of the year. Alonso tore his ACL in the Saints first-round playoff loss to Minnesota, putting the start to his 2020 season in jeopardy. He is also due to count over $8.6 million dollars against the Saints salary cap this season, making it possible that the team will release him if they do not renegotiate his deal.
Another contract situation that bears watching is that of the seven-year veteran A.J. Klein, who had his best statistical season in his third year with New Orleans. The 28-Yr old Klein had 2.5 sacks and 7 pressures, along with an interception return for a touchdown, a fumble recovery and one forced. His 67 tackles were third on the team, six of which were for loss. Klein has been a key run stopper and an important part of the Saints defense over his three years with the team. He is an unrestricted free agent though and questionable to return. New Orleans has expressed their desire in bringing Klein back, but it would unlikely be at the $9 million base salary he played at in 2019.
Another early season injury that affected linebacker depth was to rookie Kaden Elliss, who was lost after three games with a knee injury. Elliss, a seventh round pick in last spring’s draft, was impressive during the preseason and shows the potential to man an inside spot. The injuries forced New Orleans to re-sign former Saint linebackers Stephone Anthony and Manti Te’o for depth. Both players are unrestricted free agents and don’t seem likely to be brought back depending on offseason moves at the position. Veteran Craig Robertson continues to be a special teams stalwart and versatile contributor capable of stepping in at any of the linebacker positions.
Demario Davis is one of the NFL’s best and most underrated defensive players. He is under contract through the end of this season, as is Anzalone. If neither Klein nor Alonso is brought back, the team must address the linebacker position this offseason. Elliss has promise but is unproven. Anzalone, while talented, has not shown that he can stay healthy. The Saints could target an athletic talent like Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray or Patrick Queen from LSU with their 1st round pick at Number 24, or perhaps a later round prospect such as Miami’s Michael Pinckney or Purdue’s Markus Bailey.
New Orleans has a better track record recently by picking up free agent linebackers though, evidenced by the additions of Davis, Klein, and Robertson. The Saints could opt for a big signing like Cory Littleton of the Rams or Cleveland’s Joe Schobert, two younger players who would shore up the inside. Outside ‘backers like Kamalei Correa of Tennessee or De’Vondre Campbell from the Falcons would bring a versatile skill set along the outside. The improvement of the Saints defense has centered on an athletic set of linebackers over the last two seasons, so we should expect some activity at this position once again to maintain that success.