As the New Orleans Saints hold the first of 3 practices open to the general public during the start of their 2017 Mini-Camp in front of an overflow crowd later this morning, one thing fans should pay special attention to is the Saints linebacker corps, and more specifically: the notable versatility of a handful of players at the position who are capable of lining up at ANY of the LB spots on a given play.
In the past several months, the Saints went out and very aggressively gave the LB corps a serious "makeover" this off-season; following the additions of A.J. Klein and Manti Te'o through free agency.
Then, they signed of former CFL Defensive Player of the Year Adam Bighill (from the Canadian Football League) to a reserve/future contract and then added former BYU star Sae Tautu as an undrafted free agent.
New Orleans also used April's 2017 NFL Draft to select underrated college star and former University of Florida linebacker Alex Anzalone in the 3rd round, and then it very quickly became obvious that many of these players have or share something in common: which is that they all have versatility to play MULTIPLE positions.
Robertson, who led the linebacker corps in 2016 with a team-high 115 tackles (71 solo), can play the "Sam" / strong side position, the "Will" / weak side and the "Mike" / middle middle linebacker, where he closed the past season.
The two players signed in Free Agency, Klein and T'eo, can both also play all 3 positions as well.
While veteran Dannell Ellerbe starts normally at the "Will" / weakside spot, he can play the "Mike" / middle spot when called upon.
3rd year veteran Stephone Anthony can play the "Mike" and the "Sam" / strongside, but actually was a Parade High School All-American stand-up outside linebacker / edge rusher in his home state of North Carolina.
And not to be outdone: there now is "Thor" (a.k.a. 3rd Round pick Alex Anzalone) --- who like Robertson, Klein, and T'eo, can play ALL 3 positions and impressed coaches last month at Saints Rookie Mini-Camp.
What it all means is that from among all these players mentioned, should eventually emerge a starting line-up at the LB position that should be as good as it has been in the past several years.
And with the addition of new linebackers coach Mike Nolan, the linebacker corps will be getting the guidance that it certainly was lacking in the past few years under previous position coach Joe Vitt, who has now joined his son-in-law (Dolphins head coach Adam Gase) in Miami.
Now, will they remind anybody of the legendary Saints "Dome Patrol" linebackers of the late 1980's and early 1990's?
Nah, probably not.
But they "should" be BETTER than in recent years past, without question.
If that proves to be the case, then the Saints defense in 2017 as a whole should see some improvement --- at a key position that's been lacking for quite some time.
Nolan has a noted reputation as a defensive “guru” within the League, and his ability to develop linebackers in particular could be the determining factor in whether or not this unit shows any notable improvement in 2017.
New Orleans Advocate beat writer Joel A. Erickson noted the other day that Nolan and defensive coordinator Dennis Allen entered this summer planning to rotate the deep group of linebackers the front office has assembled all over the place, then let the competition decide who lines up where when the season begins in September.
And Erickson adds: a lot of the Saints' new linebackers, particularly Klein --- who's expected to start at the "Mike" spot --- fit the versatility profile.
"Klein, and some of these other guys, we think have position flexibility," coach Sean Payton told reporters after the final practice of this year's OTA's last week.
As Saints fans view the practices beginning today and also tomorrow and Thursday, one thing to keep in mind is that linebackers are a bit hard to evaluate in the summer without pads on.
We'll have a much better understanding in August once the Saints are practicing daily in full pads, and then of course during the Pre-Season games.
But one thing that we do know already: for the Saints linebacker corps, the "name of the game" is VERSATILITY --- and it could go a very long way in ultimately determining their eventual success or failure, in 2017........