The New Orleans Saints are now diving head-first into the 2018 NFL off-season process, and one of their main objectives will be looking to shore up any lingering weaknesses on their roster that could prevent them from remaining a Super Bowl contender for years to come.
One of those weaknesses is at the linebacker position, where starters A.J. Klein and Craig Robertson and back-up Mantai Te'o are all good players, but aren't exactly what you'd label as "game changers" at those spots.
There's also rookie Alex Anzalone, who has a ton of talent and ability but so far is an unproven commodity after the Saints 3rd Round draft pick in 2017 out of the University of Florida; was lost for the season with a shoulder injury back in Week #4 in London, England against the Dolphins.
Unfortunately for New Orleans, there's "slim pickings" at the linebacker position in 2018 NFL Free Agency (the only "good" players available are the Eagles' Nigel Bradham and Detroit's Tahir Whitehead); making the likelihood that the Saints will look for a player in April's upcoming 2018 NFL Draft who can upgrade the position and play on all three downs, almost a certainty at this point.
With that in mind, this morning the Saints News Network is taking a look at the few select linebackers in this year's upcoming 2018 Draft Class, who are players that are considered to be "game changers" at the position — and all of whom could potentially shape the way that the Saints play defense, for years to come.
And we start first with the best linebacker in college football and the #1 "game changer", that would look great in the Black and Gold if he somehow ended up in NOLA......
ROQUAN SMITH, GEORGIA
The UNDISPUTED #1 LB in the 2018 NFL Draft Class, Smith has drawn comparisons to players such as Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Lavonte David and Atlanta Falcons linebacker Deion Jones, to name just a few. But whether or not he will meet those type of comparisons at the next level, remains to be seen (at least for now).
The University of Georgia All-American recorded 137 tackles, 14 tackles for a loss, 6.5 sacks, and one forced fumble in his junior season in 2017, and is considered by most NFL Draft experts and analysts across the board to be the most well-rounded prospect at the linebacker position in this year’s draft class, since he can do everything well and essentially play / line up anywhere on the field that you choose to put him at.
Pro Football Focus graded him the 4th highest linebacker in the nation in 2017 and the 2nd best linebacker in pass coverage, and they noted that Smith missed just 15 of his 238 tackle attempts during his collegiate career for the Bulldogs while leading them to a College Football Playoff Championship Game appearance.
Sadly for the Saints, Smith is currently projected by some current Mock Drafts to be a Top 10 pick, meaning that New Orleans (currently picking 27th overall) would have to move / trade up, to get him.
TREMAINE EDMUNDS, VIRGINIA TECH
The younger brother of Saints back-up RB Trey Edmunds, the 6-foot-5 defensive star is one of the current "quick risers" among the top LB prospects in this year's upcoming 2018 NFL Draft, since he has the versatility to play both inside and outside linebacker at the next level, and would arguably be an upgrade over any starting linebacker on the Saints roster with the possible exception of Alex Anzalone, who still hasn't had a real opportunity to prove himself yet.
The former Hokie had a phenomenal 2017 season, as he recorded 108 tackles, 14 tackles for a loss, 5.5 sacks, and three forced fumbles in 2017. Unfortunately for the Saints however, because of his sudden rise on most Draft Boards it would seem unlikely that he'll be available once they get on the clock at #27.
ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. currently has the Cincinnati Bengals selecting Edmunds with the #12 overall pick, while Bleacher Report’s top NFL Draft analyst Matt Miller has the Hokies linebacker going one spot earlier to the Miami Dolphins and says that “Edmunds is somewhere between Telvin Smith and Anthony Barr.”
Make no mistake about it: Saints fans would surely be happy to have "the next" Telvin Smith or Anthony Barr in the middle of their defensive Front 7; but given the team’s current draft position, you shouldn't expect the Edmunds Brothers to be reunited in NOLA.
MALIK JEFFERSON, TEXAS
The 6-foot-3, 240-pound Jefferson is considered by some to be a potential "franchise" linebacker at the next level, and Bleacher Report NFL Draft expert Matt Miller even has the Saints taking Jefferson with their top pick at #27 overall in his most recent mock draft and expects Jefferson to “test off the charts” at the NFL Scouting Combine.
Miller notes that if he were to be selected by the Saints, the team should free him up to make plays and go after quarterbacks and running backs in a scheme in which he can use his speed, but also cautions that Jefferson is still likely to be available late in Round #1 because he struggled with instincts at middle linebacker.
Jefferson racked up 231 tackles, 26 tackles for a loss, 13 sacks, and two forced fumble in three seasons at Texas, and has been on the radar of college and NFL scouts dating back to 2014, when he won the National High School 2014 Butkus Award (given to the best linebacker in high school) as a senior at Poteet High School in Mesquite, Texas.
Jefferson potentially could flourish at the next level with the right position coach, and could (and would) be an interesting pairing along with Saints linebacker coach Mike Nolan if he were to be taken at that #27 spot.
RASHAAN EVANS, ALABAMA
Obviously it goes without saying that with 5 National Championships in the last 9 years, the University of Alabama has a very notable as well as recent history of developing future NFL players, and in just the past few years they've had several "franchise-caliber" linebackers impact the League after playing under head coach Nick Saban.
That's evidenced by the recent NFL Draft selections of current young NFL stars and former Crimson Tide alumni such as Reggie Ragland and Reuben Foster — who nearly became a Saint last year until right before the San Francisco 49ers traded up to snag Foster with the 31st overall pick ahead of New Orleans (who then took Wisconsin offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk at #32).
This year's Alabama LB expected to make a significant impact at the next level, the 6-foot-3, 234-pound Evans recorded 74 tackles, 13 tackles for a loss, six sacks, and one forced fumble in his senior season. He also played a key role in Alabama’s National Championship run, racking up 17 tackles and a sack in the College Football Playoff.
Bur sadly once again, current Mock Draft projections have Evans being selected right before the Saints will have a chance to get on the clock to make their pick; and (ironically) Bleacher Report's Matt Miller has the Buffalo Bills selecting Evans with the #21 pick overall of the 1st-round while noting that Evans “has the football IQ, athleticism and instincts to be a game-changer on defense.”
JOSEY JEWELL, IOWA
Perhaps one of the more underrated and definitely one of the more intriguing LB prospects of the 2018 NFL Draft Class, the 6-foot-2, 236-pound Jewell is seen as a "hidden gem" by some evaluators, after he totaled 433 tackles, 28 tackles for a loss, 10 sacks, 26 passes defended, six interceptions, and three forced fumbles in his entire Hawkeyes career; along with Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2017.
ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. lists Jewell as the third best inside linebacker prospect, while Bleacher Report's Matt Miller ranks him as the seventh best player at his position and notes that Jewell is the “biggest sleeper” among linebackers and is "a heat-seeking missile who's constantly around the ball".
Nevertheless, Jewell’s size and speed have some NFL scouts doubtful about how just how well he will fare at the next level, although he just recently got an endorsement from his well-respected head coach (Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz), who told NFL.com's Dan Parr of College Football 24/7 that “Josey’s not what I would call a combine guy. He’s not 6-3, he’s not going to run a 4.4 (40-yard dash). But if you’re not careful, you’re going to miss a lot of good players that way. My advice is just watch the film.”
If you actually do watch the film, Jewell will remind Saints fans A LOT of last year's 3rd Round selection Alex Anzalone (minus the long blonde hair) because he's literally "all over the place" — and there's a chance that New Orleans could get another potential mid-round steal if Jewell somehow is still hanging around on the Board when they pick in Round #3. One can only imagine what having Jewell and Anzalone together in the same LB corps, would potentially mean for the middle of the Saints defense (if they stayed healthy) for years to come.
LEIGHTON VANDER ESCH, BOISE STATE
The final potential "game changer" among our early look at potential Saints LB prospects for the upcoming 2018 NFL Draft class (there's a steep drop-off talent-wise at the LB position after this), Vander Esch may be the biggest sleeper at the linebacker position (even a bigger sleeper than Iowa's Josey Jewell) despite winning the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year award in 2017.
The main reasons that the 6-foot-4, 240-pound Vander Esch may have been overlooked previously before heading into this current Draft process is that he missed more than half the 2016 season with injuries, and also because he played at Boise State — a program where despite sending a handful players to the NFL in recent years, still doesn't get the respect that other bigger schools like Alabama and Ohio States always seem to do.
But that all changed for Vander Esch thanks to his redshirt junior year in 2017, where he completely went into full-attack mode and recorded a team-high 141 total tackles, 8.5 tackles for a loss, four sacks, two interceptions, and four forced fumbles. Vander Esch also led all FBS linebackers with 57 run stops in 2017, according to Pro Football Focus.
Then there was his back-to-back performances against Fresno State in the Mountain West Championship Game (a whopping 16 tackles and an interception); and a few weeks later against Oregon in the Las Vegas Bowl, where he recorded 12 tackles and a sack in a 38-28 victory.
Vander Esch has been compared by some to former Chicago Bears star Brian Urlacher, and should he still be around when the Saints are on the clock in Round #3, you'd have to believe he'd garner some major consideration from Jeff Ireland and company to give New Orleans the "game changer" that is still needs, at the LB position in 2018.......