The New Orleans Saints organization officially "wrapped up" its 2018 NFL off-season with an abbreviated 2-day Mini-Camp this past week; before players, coaches, and front office staff headed out to their yearly Summer vacations in advance of Training Camp which begins later next month.
But before they were able to pack their bags and leave for destinations unknown for the next few weeks, the general buzz among the media covering the team is that in very much the same manner that the defensive secondary and specifically the cornerback position was the team's biggest improvement last year, this year it appears to be taking place at the linebacker position — and that's a good thing.
If there were any reasons to point out why the Saints defense was so horrible prior to last year's remarkable turnaround, certainly the linebacker position was a huge part of its notable failure and bottom-of-the-League finishes for 3 straight (7-9) seasons from 2014 through 2016.
But since that time, the organization brought in well-respected and long-time NFL defensive "guru" Mike Nolan to coach the position group; and through Free Agency and the NFL Draft added players A.J. Klein, Manti T'eo, Alex Anzalone and Demario Davis into the mix.
And it's the addition specifically of Davis and the return of Anzalone from a season-ending injury as a rookie, that has the organization excited the most.
One of the fatal flaws that the linebacker position suffered during that horrid stretch of games dating from 2014 through 2016 was the lack of speed and players who were fast enough to make plays.
No offense to former Saints LB Dannell Ellerbe (who remains an unsigned free agent) or the recently-released Michael Mauti, but neither player exactly instills FEAR into the hearts of opposing players.
And yet, the Saints were still hoping to win games with both of them in the starting line-up.
More often times than not, they weren't up to the task.
But last year the additions of Klein and T'eo in Free Agency and Anzalone via the 2017 NFL Draft, dramatically improved the position's overall talent pool; and for the most part served as a palpable upgrade from previous years.
Nevertheless, Anzalone was lost for the season last year after sustaining a severe right shoulder injury during the first quarter of the Week #5 contest against the Miami Dolphins on October 1st, in London, England.
And while Anzalone's starting role at "Will" / weakside linebacker was filled very capably by veteran Craig Robertson, one can only imagine what the difference would have been if the younger and presumably more-talented Anzalone could have remained on the field.
Now with the addition of Davis and the return of Anzalone, it's very likely that the Saints LB corps will be as improved as its ever been.
Adding more speed and the versatility to fill multiple roles as both a pass rusher and run defender is exactly why the team chose to sign Davis, the former New York Jets linebacker whom Saints brass targeted immediately in the first wave of 2018 NFL Free Agency a few short months ago.
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 additionally what he brings is a player with the versatility to play multiple roles (he can play at the "Sam" / strongside spot as well, and played the "Will" / weakside in college at Arkansas State) and perhaps most importantly: a linebacker with the adequate speed it takes to play off the ball and defend the run sideline-to-sideline, and who can also cover TE's and RB's coming out of the backfield.
As noted by New Orleans Advocate Nick Underhill the other day after the conclusion of Mini-Camp: Davis showed good range and flashed some explosiveness these past few weeks during OTA's and at Mini-Camp, that the Saints haven’t had at the position the past few years.
Underhill observed that Davis had a few plays — whether it was in run defense or blitzing — during which his first step and instincts were very impressive. He also had a play in coverage where he ran down the field with Alvin Kamara, of all people.
How impressive is that?
Underhill notes that if Davis performs as expected and Anzalone remains healthy, the linebacker position could be a strength for this defense. And he also adds: the range those two players could bring to the nickel package would also be a significant upgrade versus a year ago.
Let's face it: the Saints linebacking corps was nothing short of an abomination for the most part, for 3 straight seasons of very notable defensive failure.
But in just a year and a half's worth of time, it's become one of the most improved positions on the entire Saints roster,
It also likely will be the most improved position group this off-season for a team that was (11-5) last season, won its Division Championship, and is hopefully still trending upward as a Top 5 NFL team for the upcoming 2018 season that is 3 months away.
When you think back and reminisce about how bad the LB corps of the past few seasons ago struggled to defend the run and hopelessly tried to chase down faster RB's and even TE's in some instances, it should turn out to be an even more noticeable improvement in 2018 with the addition of Davis and the return of Anzalone.