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Barry Hirstius

Are Saints Fine With Klein in the Middle?

When the New Orleans Saints signed former Carolina linebacker A.J. Klein to a 4-year, $24 million deal with $9.4 million in guaranteed money almost 2 months ago today, they did so with the intention of giving the 4th year veteran a new opportunity to be a starter in the NFL --- after the former 3-time All-Big 12 Conference linebacker out of Iowa State had served as a back-up on one of the league's best linebacking corps with the Panthers.

Or, at least that was the Saints' intentions originally.

But after New Orleans selected University of Florida linebacker Alex Anzalone with the #76 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft a week and a half ago, the plan -- at least for now -- seems to have possibly been tweaked a bit.

In a press conference with the media following the team's Day 2 selections, Saints head coach Sean Payton said this about the pick of Anzalone and then the competition at the "Mike" /middle linebacker spot specifically:

"I see this guy as someone who's played Will, Sam and Mike," Payton said in reference to Anzalone. "We’d just initially said that we would start him out on the weak side, but we’ve got real good depth now at a number of positions. He is the one linebacker in this draft that we felt could play all three."

Payton then added:

"Those guys are all competing right now," coach Sean Payton said of the "Mike" linebacker role. "It's an open competition -- period. We’ll get going and see how they handle it and try to get our best guys on the field.”

Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Now for those of you unfamiliar with football terminology, the "Mike" / middle linebacker in the 4-3 alignment that the Saints run, is essentially the captain or the 'field general' of the defensive unit when they're on the field, and is responsible for calling the defensive signals and making sure everybody else is in the right place and on the same page.

He also has the toughest job of the 4-3 linebackers, because he needs to be able to cover the most ground, be it sideline to sideline, covering expanded gaps in what's known as a "Wide-9 defensive front" along the line of scrimmage, or dropping into the deep middle part of the field in pass coverage.

And now with the selection of Anzalone in the Draft, the Saints now have 3 --- count'em, THREE --- linebackers that can play all 3 linebacker positions ( Middle / “Mike”, Weakside / “Will”, and Strongside / “Sam”): Craig Robertson (last year's starter at the end of the season), Klein, and Anzalone.

Additionally, recent Saints free-agent signee and former Chargers LB Mantai T'eo can also play the "Mike" position as well; meaning that if Payton is true to his word, it seems likely that the Saints could potentially have a 4-way competition between Klein, Te'o, Robertson and now even Anzalone once OTA's begin on May 23rd, and throughout the summer into Training Camp and the Pre-Season in August.

Grant it, the 25-year old Klein (he turns 26 at the start of Training Camp July 30th) could still be in the starting line-up nevertheless, given that he can play at the "Sam" / strongside spot as well.

But wherever the Saints eventually place Klein in the line-up, it would seem that their ultimate goal is to allow the underrated former 5th Round pick by Carolina in the 2013 NFL Draft, show what he can do on his own; after learning the ins and outs of the linebacker position at the pro level from two of the game's best linebackers in Panthers All-Pro LB's Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis.

Photo courtesy of the Charlotte Observer

As a matter of fact, when you look closely at Klein's path towards NFL success, it seems that he has slowly but surely progressed incrementally at each stop along the way --- and perhaps the Saints are hoping that he can reach his ultimate peak in the Black and Gold.

Born in Appleton, Wisconsin, Klein grew up in the nearby town of Kimberly (110 miles to the northwest or about a 2-hour drive from Milwaukee); where he was an all-state LB and led his team to back-to-back Division II state championships in his final two seasons at Kimberly High School. He recorded 121 tackles, five sacks, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries as a senior, and his entire high school career included 287 tackles, 17 sacks and two interceptions.

Perhaps more impressive (and what has made him a good player at the professional level) was -- and still is -- his speed.

A member of the Kimberly High School track & field squad, Klein competed as a sprinter in spring of 2008. During the indoor season, he competed in the 55-meter dash and recorded a personal-best time of 7.01 seconds at the Oshkosh Invite. He also competed in the 100-meter dash during the outdoor track season, earning a 5th-place finish at the WIAA Regional with an impressive time of 11.8 seconds.

Considered a three-star recruit by Rivals.com, he accepted a scholarship offer from Iowa State over offers from Northern Illinois, Western Michigan and the University of Wyoming.

While attending Iowa State, Klein was a member of the Cyclones football team from 2009 to 2012; and slowly blossomed into an all-conference performer. He played in every game as a true freshman finishing the season with 17 tackles, and also caused and recovered a fumble.

He played in 12 games, and starting 10, as a sophomore; finishing 2nd on the team in tackles with 111, including eight for loss. He also had three interceptions (returning 2 for touchdowns), four pass deflections, and a fumble recovery.

Then as a junior in 2011, Klein had the season that truly put him on the radar of NFL scouts.

(Associated Press Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

He started in all 13 games, recording 116 tackles, including 7.5 tackles for loss and two sacks, seven pass deflections, six pass break ups, and an interception (returned for a touchdown). He was named Big 12 Co-Defensive Player of the Year and earned All-Big 12 first team honors.

Photo courtesy of the Des Moines Register

In his senior season, he came back one last time and recorded 117 tackles, including 3.5 tackles for loss and one sack, three pass deflections, two pass break ups and another "Pick 6" interception (returned for a touchdown). He earned All-Big 12 first team honors once again. His four career "Pick 6" interceptions for touchdowns tied an NCAA record that currently still stands.

Klein was drafted by the Carolina Panthers in the 5th round, (#148th overall) in the 2013 NFL Draft.

Right off the bat during his 2013 rookie campaign, Klein would become a key contributor on special teams and was inserted into the Panthers starting lineup following an injury to fellow LB Chase Blackburn in Week #10 against San Francisco, while even notching a sack against 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to boot. Klein finished that contest with six tackles and a sack. Klein played in all 16 regular season games with two starts and recorded 21 tackles and two sacks.

He served as a reserve behind starting All-Pro LB Luke Kuechly in 2014 and then once again in 2015, a season where he posted a career-high 56 tackles, one sack and one forced fumble in 2015 for the Panthers.

But then last season, Klein had a career-defining moment that eventually would land him a free-agent deal with the Saints.

During Week #10 of the 2016 season, Kuechly suffered complications from a severe concussion against the Saints (ironically) and as a result, didn't play for the rest of the season. That enabled Klein to take over the starting role, and in his 7 total starts, Klein made 16 solo tackles, assisted on 13 more and registered a sack as well.

Photo courtesy of the Charlotte Observer

Now a few months later, we've reached another career-defining moment for Klein as he begins his first official workouts with the team starting with OTA's 2 weeks from tomorrow (May 23rd).

To be sure, Klein has his doubters; as there are a large portion of Saints fans still upset over the team signing another free agent middle linebacker last year that turned out to be a compete "bust", in former L.A. Rams star James Laurinaitis.

(Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire)

Laurinaitis was said to be "washed up" by several anonymous NFL front office personnel executives before the Saints even signed him, which turned out to be true. Laurinatis was subsequently released last November, and it was yet another move that hasn't turned out well in Free Agency during the past several years for Saints brass.

Now, there are many who feel that the Saints may have overreached by signing Klein when other players such as Zach Brown (who was 2nd in the NFL with 149 tackles with Buffalo in 2016 and eventually signed with the Redskins) were available to them.

The folks over at Pro Football Focus were especially critical of the signing, with analyst Sam Monson blasting the move by Saints brass and giving it a letter grade of 'D' in his review of every major move by all 32 NFL teams in Free Agency:

LB A.J. Klein to New Orleans Saints

Actual: Four years, $24 million, $9.4 million guaranteed

PFF play-earned contract: Four years, $3.4 million, $750k guaranteed

Grade: D

The Saints are backing on A.J. Klein’s ability to step into a larger role and start for them. He has played a reasonable number of snaps over each of the past two seasons as Luke Kuechly’s backup given the struggles of the star LB with concussions, and the results have been mixed. His play in 2015 was good, but this past year he allowed a passer rating of 119.6 when targeted and 76.9 percent of the targets into his coverage to be caught.

Monson's scathing assessment aside, it's fairly obvious the Saints liked Klein for a variety of reasons, the least of which is that the Saints are expected to begin shifting towards more looks in the "Tampa 2" defensive alignment with the addition of new linebacker coach Mike Nolan.

To be more specific in laymen's terms, players within the "Tampa 2" don't have the prototypical size of other NFL defenders. Instead, the stress is put on other intangibles --- most notably speed (which Klein obviously has), a high football IQ (again which Klein has) and a set of flawless fundamentals such as tackling and quickly wrapping up the ball-carrier at the point of attack (that's where he gets into trouble).

And while having a quick defensive line is also a must to play the alignment, the "Mike" linebacker position is the proverbial "straw that stirs the drink".

In the "Tampa 2", the "Mike" / middle linebacker must have above-average speed, and additional skills to be able to read the play and either maintain his central position to help the outside linebackers cover short passes, drop behind the linebackers in coverage and protect the zone of the field behind the outside linebackers from 11-20 yards out, or run up to the line of scrimmage to help assist in stopping the runs.

It takes a special linebacker to do that, and obviously Klein fits that mold in the Saints' eyes.

But the fact that the Saints signed Mantai T'eo just a few weeks later after Klein, and then subsequently followed that up by drafting Alex Anzalone last week, suggests that they aren't comfortable leaving themselves without other options in case Klein doesn't pan out.

Photo courtesy of USA TODAY Sports

The Saints are hoping that Klein's athleticism and sideline-to-sideline capabilities (as good as almost every inside linebacker currently in the game today) will win out over his notable struggles in pass coverage, by backing it up with a healthy secondary that will feature the new additions in the defensive backfield of Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams.

If there's any "fatal flaw" that Klein has, it's that he often guesses wrong and puts himself out of position, which was no doubt a huge factor in his struggles in coverage.

Additionally, he'll have to clean up the fundamental deficiencies in his game such as his penchant for biting hard on play-fakes and his over-aggressiveness on running plays, that leaves him vulnerable to surrendering "big gains".

Photo courtesy of USA TODAY Sports

These are the type of things that are correctable however with the proper coach in place, which the Saints unquestionably are counting on Mike Nolan to be (and Joe Vitt obviously was not).

Nolan and Klein could be the perfect marriage together as the Saints look to implement and incorporate those "Tampa 2" elements into defensive coordinator Dennis Allen's scheme.

Or --- at least that's the "plan", anyway.

The Saints have several positions that will be scrutinized heavily this coming season, must importantly a pass rusher off the opposite edge of Cam Jordan; but perhaps none of them will be as any more critical in their overall success or failure than the "Mike" linebacker position will be.

Are the Saints fine with A.J. Klein starting in the middle of their defense in 2017?

We don't have that answer just yet --- but we're about to find out, soon enough..........

Saints News Network Editor / Featured Columnist and Lead Analyst Barry Hirstius is a 50-year old semi-retired journalist and former New Orleans area sports editor and columnist previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints NFL football team. Additionally, he is a frequent guest on a variety of Sports Talk Radio programs that cover the Saints. Barry is also a New Orleans native that dating all the way back to his childhood in the early 1970's, attended games at the old Tulane Stadium and grew up as a long-time Saints fan; following and now covering the team for a span of over 40 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.......

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