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Saints Depth at the Linebacker Position is the Best It’s Been in a While — But Here’s a Few Questions Going Forward

With the addition this past off-season of former New York Jets linebacker Demario Davis in 2018 NFL Free Agency, the New Orleans Saints defense under defensive coordinator Dennis Allen now has the best depth at the linebacker position that it’s had in quite a while.

In fact, you’d have to go all the way back to the franchise’s only Super Bowl-winning season of 2009 when Jonathan Vilma, Scott Fujita and Scott Shanle comprised the starting unit, to find a deeper group of players that will man the position going forward in 2018.

But with all of the “hype” surrounding the LB position in the past few days through a variety of different sites that cover the team exclusively in a similar manner to ours, here at the Saints News Network we still have some questions that we believe Allen along with linebackers coach Mike Nolan, will have to determine in OTA’s, June Mini-Camp, Training Camp, Pre-Season, and eventually: the 53-man Final Roster cut-down in the 1st week of September.

Photo courtesy of Parker Waters, Crescent City Sports

So with that in mind, here a few questions that we believe the organization must have to find some answers to, in the next few upcoming weeks and months ahead.

Starting first with…….

 

#1. WHO LINES UP WHERE? WHO ARE THE LIKELY STARTERS AT THE 3 DIFFERENT POSITIONS?

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

The best part about the team’s notable depth this year is the versatility of the group.

Nearly EVERY single player can line up at multiple positions, with Davis, A.J. Klein, Craig Robertson, and Alex Anzalone all able to play ALL 3 of the spots at Middle LB (“Mike”), Strongside LB (“Sam”) and Weakside LB (“Will”). 

That versatility came in handy, when both Anzalone and Klein were lost for the remainder of the year; and Robertson and Mantai Te’o pressed into action in their absence.

Our best guess at who will line up where, to start the season: Davis at the “Mike”, Klein at the “Sam”, and Robertson at the “Will”.

 

#2. CAN ALEX ANAZALONE STAY HEALTHY LONG ENOUGH TO MAKE AN IMPACT IN HIS 2nd YEAR?

Photo courtesy of Ron Schwane, The Associated Press

For the Saints this season, one of the biggest questions at the position surrounds last year’s 3rd Round pick, former University of Florida LB Alex Anzalone.

Can the big risk that the Saints took by choosing a player with a notable reputation for being “injury-prone”, end up paying off as a big reward if he can stay healthy?

Unfortunately for both the Saints and Anzalone, that concern over his past health issues was validated rather quickly when his rookie season came to an abrupt end, after only playing in a grand total of 4 regular season games.

Anzalone hasn’t played a FULL SEASON since his sophomore year at Florida (2014), and if he hopes to make any sort of negligible or meaningful impact for the Saints this year, then he will have to PROVE that he can finally “shake” the injury-prone label (fair or unfair) that he’s earned a not-so-great reputation with.

 

#3. A.J. KLEIN WAS ACTUALLY PFF’s LOWEST-RATED “STARTING” LINEBACKER LAST YEAR — DID THE SAINTS “OVERPAY” FOR HIS SERVICES?

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

Klein and Te’o should likely compete “head to head” for the strongside / “Sam” role in the base defense, and the expected competition between the two men will certainly be an interesting Camp ‘battle’ to watch.

However, the folks over at Pro Football Focus actually had Klein (again: fair or unfair depending on how you choose to look at it as a Saints fan) rated as their WORST “starter” among all of the starting LB’s — regardless of where they actually lined up — in the entire League last season. So…..did they “overpay” for his services?

Klein was signed to a four-year, $24 million deal last year in 2017 NFL Free Agency, although in reality, it’s a three-year, $15 million deal that could go all the way down to a two-year, $10 million deal, if for some reason that the Saints want to opt out in just in case Klein isn’t considered a top player on the team by this season’s end.

If Klein doesn’t beat out Te’o in Camp to become the starting “Sam” LB, our guess would be that he’ll obviously remain on the team but would be in serious jeopardy of returning for another year beyond this season; especially if he gets hurt again or has an underwhelming performance in the eyes of the Saints coaching staff.

 

#4. CAN DEMARIO DAVIS CONTINUE PLAYING AT THE HIGH LEVEL THAT HE DID FOR THE JETS?

Photo courtesy of The New York Times

On the flip side of PFF’s ranking of Klein, the Saints actually signed one of the highest-rated starting LB’s in the League last year when they signed Davis a few months ago to a three year, $24 million deal ($18 million guaranteed).

Davis played at the “Mike” / middle LB spot for the Jets in 2017 and had a phenomenal season, as he recorded 135 combined tackles and 97 solo tackles, both career highs. He also had 3 passes defended, 5 sacks., 13 TFL’s (tackles for loss), 15 QB hits, and 1 fumble recovery. 

But the question that Saints fans obviously had after the signing and will continue to have is can Davis continue that high level of play in New Orleans, where he will be playing in an entirely different system than the one that he played in under Jets defensive coordinator Kacy Rodgers and head coach Todd Bowles?

With the notable free agent “busts” that the Saints have signed to big-dollar contracts in recent seasons such as Jarius Byrd, Brandon Browner, C.J. Spiller, and the soon-to-be-released Coby Fleener, you  can forgive Saints fans (and us here at Saints News Network) for feeling a bit apprehensive until we see Davis making plays on the field.

 

#5. THE SAINTS CAN’T KEEP ALL OF THESE LINEBACKERS — WHO WILL BE THE “ODD MAN OUT”?

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

As of now, the Saints have Klein, Robertson, Anzalone, Te’o, Nate Stupar and Michael Mauti are all returning to the field for the start of 2018, who were on the roster at the end of the season in the Divisional Playoff loss at Minnesota.

New Orleans since that time has also added Davis obviously; as well as undrafted rookies such as former University of Tennessee star Colton Jumper and Georgia Tech LB KeShun Freeman, along with “journeyman” veteran Jayrone Elliott.

While Jumper and Freeman are potential Practice Squad candidates, there’s no way that the Saints are going to keep all of the 8 other veteran players that now are “bulging out” at the position. So WHO will become the proverbial “odd man out”?

Our guess at the moment is that it will come down to Stupar and Mauti — with the one player who “stands out” from the other in the upcoming OTA’s, June Mini-Camp, Training Camp, and eventually the 2018 NFL Pre-Season — as the player that will remain on the 53-man Final Roster following the final cut-down in the 1st week of September…….

UPDATE: 5:00 P.M. New Orleans time, May 16th, 2018: It looks like we were right, but 4 months ahead of time…

Saints News Network Editor / Featured Columnist and Lead Analyst Barry Hirstius is a 50-year old semi-retired journalist and former New Orleans area sports editor and columnist previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints NFL football team. Additionally, he is a frequent guest on a variety of Sports Talk Radio programs that cover the Saints. Barry is also a New Orleans native that dating all the way back to his childhood in the early 1970's, attended games at the old Tulane Stadium and grew up as a long-time Saints fan; 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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