A "game changer" at the linebacker position. For the New Orleans Saints defense in 2017, it was the one thing they were still missing that potentially could allow them to remain a Super Bowl contender for years to come, in spite of the fact that they will likely be losing their starting QB Drew Brees to retirement (and the NFL Hall of Fame) within the next few years.
In today's modern NFL in the year 2018, the "sling-it-all-around" mentality on offense now employed by many offensive coordinators throughout the League puts a premium on speed and coverage from the back seven of a defensive scheme / alignment.
Linebackers don't just line up in a stance and come crashing through the middle of the line of scrimmage, banging heads with RB's like they used to do back during the days of Dick Butkus, Ray Nitschke, or Jack Lambert (if you're too young to recognize any of those names, you might want to "Google it").
Linebackers in this current era of the NFL — at least the ones who play either in the middle of the field or "inside" — need to be able to run now more than ever. They need to be able to cover quicker RB's and TE's, and sometimes even match up in man coverage one-on-one on against a quicker, smaller WR when needed.
Bottom line: they need to move fast, yet still have the ability to hold up in the run game when asked to do so with a sense of urgency and physical aggression. Getting "spread out" happens a lot to most NFL defenses, which means that a middle / inside linebacker has to run and cover a lot more than ever before.
Last year for New Orleans' much-improved and #10 overall ranked defense, starters A.J. Klein and Craig Robertson and back-ups Mantai Te'o, Nate Stupar, and Michael Mauti were all good players, but aren't exactly what you'd label as "game changers" at those spots.
There was 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; 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.
Which brings us this morning to Saints News Network's first Saints 2018 NFL Draft prospect to be profiled: University of Alabama linebacker Rashaan Evans.
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 players and former Crimson Tide alumni such as Reggie Ragland and Reuben Foster — the now controversial young star LB 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).
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.
ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. says that Evans is versatile enough to play EITHER inside or outside, and had 15 career sacks at Alabama, where he often played on the edge and blitzed. Kiper says that Evans "is a perfect fit in the middle of a modern-day defense — he can play every down."
Bleacher Report's Matt Miller says that Evans “has the football IQ, athleticism, and instincts to be a 'game-changer' on defense.” That's EXACTLY the type of player — a 'game-changer' — at the linebacker position that the Saints have been lacking.
Full Press Coverage NFL Draft Analyst Parker Hurley says that the 22-year old Auburn, Alabama native brings a great blend of speed, strength, and discipline. He has gap discipline and is almost never caught out of position. Screens, reverses, and misdirection will be snuffed out by Evans, and decidedly so.
Hurley notes that Evans has the ability to stay in his lane and maintain his gap along with his strength and power allow him to be a stud run defender. He is able to beat lineman trying to get into the second level and lay the finishing blow at the line of scrimmage on ball-carriers, and has the technique to use his hands to push and disengage from blocks, allowing him to get free in the backfield and blow up run plays with punishing hits.
Rashaan try to kill everyone he tackles pic.twitter.com/wrI0PdiJGP
— Jon Ledyard (@LedyardNFLDraft) February 3, 2018
Hurley also adds that Evans has the speed to roam sideline-to-sideline when defending the run. He has the great closing speed to finish plays behind the line of scrimmage. But perhaps most importantly where most NFL teams are concerned: Evans is a blitzing "nightmare".
Hurley says that blitzing off the outside edge could be Evans' best NFL trait due to his speed and ability to do it from the middle linebacker spot, but also off of the edges. Evans features pure burst, but also has a spin move and decent hand technique to shake free of blockers when attacking the quarterback.
However.....Evans has to have some notable weaknesses as well, right?
He does indeed, as Hurley cautions that there are times where Evans will choose his gap over freelancing to make the play and it has cost him. He is not as instinctive or a "game changer", as much as he is a well-disciplined player.
Biggest complaint with Evans by far is just how slow a processor he is and his decision-making is questionable, has strong A here, his window opens and he’s a tad late to the trigger, then takes himself out of the play by trying to go around the block for some reason pic.twitter.com/KUgedV1UJs
— Jon Ledyard (@LedyardNFLDraft) February 3, 2018
Hurley also warns that there are times where Evans will have to diagnose quickly in coverage and he ends up a step behind. He also can pick the wrong hole when it comes to defending the run, but the biggest question to his game moving forward will come in pass coverage — where Evans at times can be a step behind or a beat off in moving in zone, and quicker wide receivers are able to get separation underneath.
Like any prospect coming out of college and moving on to the next level, Evans will have his struggles and "growing pains" as he makes the transition to the pro game. But his potential is obviously "off the charts", and it's a possible future that certainly could blossom in New Orleans.
For the Saints it's likely that if Evans were to be their top pick, he would see immediate game-action at either the "Mike" / middle LB or "Sam" / strongside spot alongside last year's starters A.J. Klein and "Will" / weakside LB Alex Anzalone; and ahead of capable back-ups Mantai Te'o, Craig Robertson, Nate Stupar, and Michael Mauti.
There are only a handful of top-tier / immediate impact players that potentially will still be left remaining to choose from when the Saints finally do get to pick at #27; and assuming Evans is one of them, it's the pick that the Saints would be wise to make if they really want to get Drew Brees another Super Bowl ring before he retires........