Saints Post-Draft Roster: Linebacker
New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis has been one of the NFL’s best and most underrated defensive players over the last two seasons. Davis has helped revamp the Saints linebacking corps, once a weakness into an athletic and playmaking group.
There is other linebacking talent around Davis, but the position was hit by injuries last year that tested their thin depth. The defense also took a hit this offseason when reliable veteran linebacker A.J. Klein departed in free agency. The Saints spent a 3rd round draft pick on Wisconsin linebacker Zack Baun to replace Klein and are hoping for better health at the position this season. Today we look at how this unit looks less than two months away from the start of training camp.
* = Rookie
Davis has been an elite player for New Orleans since signing as a free agent in 2018. He’s had over 100 tackles in each of his two years with the team, along with 22 tackles for loss and 30 quarterback pressures. Despite being overlooked in Pro Bowl voting in both outstanding years, Davis earned 1st team All-Pro honors in 2019 with 111 tackles (11 for loss), 4 sacks, 15 QB pressures, and a career high 12 passes defended. The 31-Yr old Davis has developed into a team leader and the heart and soul of the Saints defense. Now in his ninth year, Davis is one of the league’s best run defenders with the football intellect and physical ability to play any of the linebacker positions. He is also a devastating blitzer and outstanding in pass coverage, with the speed to make plays sideline to sideline and the physicality to excel in the trenches.
Alex Anzalone enters his fourth season with the Saints after being a 3rd round pick in the 2017 draft. The 25-Yr old Anzalone is an athletic player with good instincts when he’s in the lineup, but has struggled to stay on the field. He has played in just 22 of 48 games in his three years and missed all but two games in 2019 with a shoulder injury. The 6’3 247-Lb Anzalone had 2 sacks, 9 quarterback pressures, an interception, 3 forced fumbles, and 3 tackles for loss among 59 total stops in a full season of action in 2018. The Saints often use him as a middle linebacker but he is athletic and versatile enough to play either inside or outside.
New Orleans brought linebacker Kiko Alonso in with an early season trade last year from Miami. The 29-Yr old Alonso played well once getting familiar with the Saints system, gathering 31 tackles and adding 5 quarterback pressures. The 6’3 239-Lb seven-year veteran has a nice range and adequate coverage skills but is most effective as a run defender in the box. He can play inside or outside and has a good play recognition of opposing offenses. Alonso tore the ACL in his right knee during the Saints 1st round playoff loss to Minnesota, putting the start of his 2020 season in some jeopardy. It is the second time he has injured his right knee and the third major knee injury suffered in his career.
Reliable veteran Craig Robertson enters his ninth NFL season and fifth with New Orleans. The 32-Yr old Robertson is capable of filling in at any of the linebacker positions and is one of the team’s best special team players. He had a sack, an interception, 2 tackles for loss, and 2 quarterback hits in relief duty for the Saints in 2019. His value to the team is not just on special teams, but his ability to be a spot starter at any of the linebacker positions.
New Orleans moved up in the 3rd round to draft Wisconsin’s Zack Baun with the 74th overall pick. The 6’2 238-Lb Baun was often used as an edge rusher in college but will be groomed to step into a starting role with the Saints at linebacker. Although inexperience in pass coverage, he has terrific athleticism to match up in man coverage and good natural instincts when in zone. Baun moves fluidly along the line of scrimmage to make plays against the run, has an explosive burst into opposing backfields, and is a disciplined open field tackler.
Kaden Elliss earned a spot with the Saints as a rookie 7th round draft pick with an impressive 2019 preseason. Elliss was placed on injured reserve early in the year with a knee injury though, never getting a chance to showcase his skills during the regular season. Son of former Detroit Lions Pro Bowl defensive end Luther Elliss, Kaden shows a good understanding of opposing offenses and a decent range at linebacker.
Undrafted rookie Joe Bachie hopes to repeat Elliss’ feat of grabbing a roster spot after being lightly regarded in the draft. Bachie has good play recognition and excellent instincts for the position. He struggles athletically in man coverage but has a good feel for zone responsibilities and is an excellent run defender. Bachie was a teammate of 2nd year fellow linebacker Andrew Dowell at Michigan State.
The Saints signed former Steelers linebacker Anthony Chickillo as a free agent. The 27-Yr old Chickillo had 7.5 sacks, 11 tackles for loss, 15 pressures, and 3 fumble recoveries in five seasons with Pittsburgh. He is also a solid special teams contributor, which may give him an added advantage in his fight for a roster spot. Chickillo has shown potential as a pass rusher but must show he can hold up in coverage to find a fit with New Orleans. Chickillo’s veteran experience gives him the early edge over Bachie and second year practice squad players Chase Hansen and Dowell, both lighter players that were on the Saints practice squad a year ago.
Davis, Anzalone, Alonso, and Robertson are all in the last year of their contracts. The team will make a strong push to re-sign Davis but Anzalone’s future with the franchise will depend on his durability. Baun’s playing time will increase as he becomes more familiar with the position, with an eye at him becoming a full-time starter by 2021. The health of this entire unit is vital. Not just to bring Baun along more slowly but also to make the entire defense effective.