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Barry Hirstius

As Camp Starts Today, Saints Hope Improved Linebacker Play Is a Difference-Maker

The New Orleans Saints officially begin reporting for the start of Training Camp this morning, as the remainder of the team's veteran players arrive to meet up with the team's rookies and coaching staff that has been already at the Training Facility in Metairie (suburban New Orleans) since last week.

As the team gets settled in and begins practicing with the first practice in full pads this Saturday (the first of 11 open practices that will be "open" to the General Public, weather permitting) in front of a "packed house", one thing where both NFL observers and fans in attendance should see a notable difference from this same time last year is with the Saints linebacker corps.

Specifically, this year's unit appears to be much better not only depth-wise, but also more talented and perhaps even more importantly from the coaching staff's point of view: much faster.

As you've no doubt heard the expression: "speed kills".

Photo courtesy of Scott Threlkeld, New Orleans Advocate

And it seems that it will be a vision shared this year by defensive coordinator Dennis Allen and new linebacker coach Mike Nolan -- a noted NFL defensive coaching "guru" and veteran of 30 plus years of NFL coaching experience as both an assistant and a head coach -- to ensure that the Saints linebacker corps if nothing else, will be quick enough to seal off the outside edges and prevent offenses from burning (and beating) them with "big plays".

In the modern-day NFL of 2017, teams are more than likely to utilize both the run and pass the from spread formations on first and second downs. Which essentially means that your "classical" linebacker from years past that weighed 250 pounds or more, now have a harder time matching up.

And with Nolan's arrival expected to usher in more looks of the "Tampa 2" defensive alignment within their defensive scheme, having faster and much more athletically gifted LB's is clearly one of the new methods of approach that the Saints are taking to improve their recently bottom-ranked defense of the past 3 seasons.

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 equally important intangibles besides size --- most notably speed, a high football IQ and a set of flawless fundamentals such as tackling and quickly wrapping up the ball-carrier at the point of attack.

To use one analogy that's often used now to describe the modern-day NFL linebacker: linebackers are looking just like the running backs they get paid to tackle. 

That might explain why the Saints went out during the just completed off-season this year and brought in former division rival and now brand new starting "Mike" / middle linebacker A.J. Klein; whom the Saints signed away from the Carolina Panthers on the first day of 2017 NFL Free Agency with a 3-year, $15 million contract that included $9.4 million worth of guaranteed money.

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

Klein is the prime example of the speedier, quicker, and much more athletically-gifted LB; and he is the prototype of the kind of player that Allen and Nolan want to be the leader for their defense.

Klein has shown already that he can be a leader and a difference-maker, when he filled in and did a commendable job last year for the Panthers while starting in the place of injured All-Pro Luke Kuechly; who missed the 2nd half of Carolina's 2016 season with lingering issues from a severe concussion.

Speaking of athleticism and speed, Klein's back-up at the "Mike" / middle LB spot is expected to be 3rd year linebacker Stephone Anthony, who of course returns after a disappointing 2016 season in which he had major issues with reading, reacting and successfully diagnosing plays run in front of him by opposing offenses.

The 31st pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, Anthony started in all 16 games as a rookie and led the Saints with 112 tackles. Anthony is still a dynamic athletic talent, and Nolan has told reporters that he likes the tools that Anthony brings to the table.

The Saints gave Anthony plenty of reps at the "Mike" position in Mini-Camp last month, which was notable because it was a return to the spot where Anthony started in his 2015 rookie season.

It's an indication that not only are the Saints giving up on the experiment of using Anthony at the "Sam" / strongside spot where they tried to use him last season, but also seems to indicate that Nolan appears to be making a lot of progress with Anthony; and getting the 25-year old to grasp the defensive concepts of the Saints defense much more effectively that his predecessor, former LB coach Joe Vitt (now in Miami).

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

Perhaps the more intriguing change at linebacker however, will occur at the "Will" / weakside linebacker position; after it was announced yesterday that the Saints would be cutting 9-year veteran linebacker Danell Ellerbe once he heals from a minor foot injury, as reported by ESPN Saints beat writer Mike Triplett.

Ellerbe, 31, will be placed on injured reserve as the team begins Training Camp today. But he is expected to be healthy within about three weeks.

As Triplett notes: Ellerbe's loss is a disappointment because he had been a dynamic playmaker at times when healthy over the past two years. But it won't be a devastating blow for the Saints, who loaded up on linebacker depth this offseason and adapted to playing without Ellerbe as he dealt with a series of nagging injuries.

In Ellerbe's place, the Saints are expected to go with versatile veteran Craig Roertson; who last year led the team in tackles while moving over to the "Mike" spot after last year's top free-agent LB signee James Laurinaitis turned out to be a "bust".

Joining Robertson in the competition at the "Will" spot will be the impressive rookie Alex Anzalone; one of the team's three 3rd Round picks out of the University of Florida. Anzalone has managed to "turn the heads" of both the Saints coaching staff as well as observers and analysts, who have been keeping a watchful eye on where he's been lining up during the Saints' off-season practices.

Like Klein, Anzalone is extremely fast and possesses a lot of "sideline to sideline" quickness that teams are looking for in today's NFL; and he quickly established himself with the coaching staff by becoming a fixture in the Saints starting defensive line-up during team drills at Mini-Camp --- as he received a good portion of snaps with the 1st unit while displaying his versatility to play every single one of the LB spots in the Saints' base 4-3 defense.

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

As of right now, Anzalone appears to be one of the true "locks" among the team's rookies to see plenty of immediate action in his very 1st season in the NFL: and he is expected to be in the mix to see a lot of snaps at the "Will" linebacker position along with Robertson, starting with the first "real" practice of Camp this Saturday --- the first practice for the team in full pads.

Not to be forgotten: the "Sam" / strongside position, where veterans Mantai Te'o and Nate Stupar are expected to be the leaders in the competition to man that spot. But don't sleep on former Canadian Football League Defensive MVP Adam Bighill, whom the Saints signed this past off-season after he had a successful 6-year run with the CFL's British Columbia Lions.

My good friend and Canal Street Chronicles managing editor and lead football analyst John Hendrix just the other day noted in his article of 5 "Under the Radar" Saints to Watch in Training Camp (click HERE to read) that what stands out with Bighill is his intensity and passion.

Hendrix says that Bighill isn't afraid to hit anyone, and that his 5-foot-10 stature is extremely misleading. Hendrix expects Bighill to find a way onto the Saints roster with stellar special teams play coupled with a strong Camp and Pre-Season, and the "Sam" / strongside position is a very strong (no pun intended) possibility of where that could take place.

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

The bottom line here is that even with yesterday's loss of Dannell Elerbe, the Saints linebacker corps this coming season is expected to better, faster, and much deeper than it has been in the past several seasons, at least "on paper".

Whether or not that will translate to success ON the field of play however, remains to be seen.

As the team now begins its 2017 Training Camp today in preparation for the upcoming 2017 season, which for New Orleans will start in 46 days from now on ESPN Monday Night Football at Minneapolis, Minnesota against the Vikings; the Saints are hoping that the improved linebacker play will be a "difference-maker".

And given that the franchise has posted 3 consecutive 7-9 seasons and missed the NFL Playoffs 3 years in a row thanks in part to some shoddy play at best from that same LB corps, having some "difference makers" at the position this year would be sure be a welcome sight to see........

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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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