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Barry Hirstius

Saints Know Where There’s a “Will”, There’s a Way in 2017

Reliability. For the New Orleans Saints in the past two seasons (2015 and 2016), having a reliable player that can actually show up and play every Sunday during the NFL season has been an issue for the team at the weakside linebacker position; known better by its slang term: the "Will" linebacker.

The "Will" linebacker is a vitally important element of the defense (the 4-3) that the Saints use, because he is your primary line of defense in pass coverage just past the line of scrimmage --- meaning that he must also be the fastest and the quickest of the three LB's in the base 4-3 so that he can match-up against opposing running backs (and sometimes tight ends) in the opponent's short passing offense.

He is also usually chasing the play from the backside, so the ability to maneuver through traffic is a necessity for the "Will". Unfortunately for the Saints, they haven't always had a player capable of being able to fill that role or man the position on a consistent basis.

That's because the starter at that position, 9th year veteran LB Dannell Ellerbe, has seemingly been plagued by a continuing series of injuries that has sidelined him for 17 out of a possible 32 games since taking over the "Will" LB spot when the Saints acquired him in a trade with the Miami Dolphins (for WR Kenny Stills) in the 2015 off-season.

Photo courtesy of The New Orleans Advocate

Essentially, when ever the Saints have had a game on Sunday the past 2 years, there's been a 50 / 50 chance that Ellerbe would be avaialble to play in it each week.

After arriving from Miami, the now 32-year old missed most of 2015 Training Camp and wasn't healthy enough to play in a game until Week #5 of that season, against the Dallas Cowboys. Ellerbe ended up only playing in a total of 6 games that season.

At that time, the alternatives for the Saints were much worse behind Ellerbe on the depth chart; and as a result the team had a gaping hole in the middle-left or middle-right (whichever one was the weakside of the formation) of the field behind the line of scrimmage --- which opponents exploited, over and over and over again.

Last season in 2016, Ellerbe was able to play in 3 additional more games than he had in 2015, and in the 9 games total that he did manage to play, he was probably the best defender that the Saints had (besides Cam Jordan) out on the field at the time.

Photo courtesy of Michael DeMocker, The New Orleans Times-Picayune

And that's the worst part of the frustration for the Saints with Ellerbe: he just might be "pound for pound" THE BEST defender that the Saints have -- when he can actually remain healthy enough to stay out on the field and contribute.

When Ellerbe is inserted into the starting line-up, his impact is undeniable; which makes his inability to do so just all that more frustrating for both the team and its fans, and it's by far and away the most disappointing element of Ellerbe's time spent in New Orleans up to this very moment.

So what can the Saints do about it?

This year, the Saints seem to have a sound plan in place to ensure that the issues that they've experienced the past 2 years, doesn't come back to bite them on their ass once again.

They will have not one but TWO players ready to play and start at the "Will" spot for not only the 2017 NFL season, but well beyond if need be: 6th year veteran Craig Robertson and rookie 3rd Round draft pick Alex Anzalone.

Photo courtesy of David Grunfeld, The New Orleans Times-Picayune

Robertson and Anzalone are 2 of the most versatile players on the entire Saints team, since both players are capable of playing all 3 linebacker positions --  not only just the"Will", but also in the middle ("Mike") and  at the strongside ("Sam") as well.

However, it's because of their ability to each play the "Will" position effectively, that both men are expected to push Ellerbe VERY HARD for his starting spot on the weakside when Training Camp gets under way in approximately 23 more days from today (July 26th).

The Saints signed Robertson in last year's 2016 Free Agency from the Cleveland Browns, and he made an immediate impact and became the team's leader on-the-field as he tallied 115 total tackles, a sack and an interception; while leading all Saints defenders by playing in nearly 1,000 (972 of them, to be exact) snaps.

However, because the team's top free-agent signee of last year, former Los Angeles Rams All-Pro middle linebacker James Laurinaitis turned out to be "washed up" and was a complete bust at the "Mike" LB spot, Robertson was forced to step in and assume the role of defensive leader at the "Mike", which he handled brilliantly.

Photo courtesy of Micheal C. Hebert

But this season with former Carolina Panthers linebacker A.J. Klein expected to fill the "Mike" / Middle linebacker role that Robertson had to take over from Laurinaitis, Robertson is now being projected to back-up Ellerbe at the "Will" LB spot --- but not before he tries to take the position away from him first.

And as it is: Robertson's not going to be alone, either.

That's because the Saints were smart enough to take rookie (and one of 3 of this year's 3rd Round picks) Alex Anzalone out of the University of Florida in the recent 2017 NFL Draft; who most Saints fans were very unfamiliar with but has quickly shown flashes of dynamic athletic ability that illustrate why the team took him in the first place.

Anzalone quickly established himself with the coaching staff by becoming a fixture in the Saints starting defensive line-up during team drills at Mini-Camp while Ellerbe was held out (once again) with a foot injury --- and now has already shown just s few weeks into his young NFL career, that he will be joining Robertson in the battle for Ellerbe's spot.

Anzalone impressed coaches with his speed and ability to quickly cover a lot of ground by moving 'sideline to sideline'; and also his outstanding capability to provide tight pass coverage by "blanketing" RB's and TE's on pass defense.

And it's because of that capability and impressive athleticism that as of right now, makes Anzalone appear to be one of the true "locks" among the team's rookies to see plenty of action in his 1st year in the NFL.

Photo courtesy if Michael C. Hebert

That should in turn make for a very interesting battle in Camp; but even if Ellerbe holds on to the starter's role, the undeniable fact remains that he is injury-prone.

One has to imagine that there's zero chance (at least as of this moment) that he will make it through an entire 16-game season; meaning that Robertson and perhaps even Anzalone down the line will need to be ready to step in and start at the "Will" LB spot, at a moment's notice.

The Saints no doubt have decided that they've  grown tired of leaving themselves left short-handed at one of the most vitally important parts of their defensive scheme, and have taken measures to make sure that it doesn't happen again for a 3rd straight season.

For the New Orleans Saints, where there's a "Will", there's a way in 2017......

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Saints News Network Editor / Featured Columnist Barry Hirstius is a 51-year old semi-retired journalist, former New Orleans-area sports editor, and columnist previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints football team. Additionally, he is a recurring guest on a variety of local Sports Talk Radio programs. Barry is also a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the team while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium in the early 1970’s, originally 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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