If you're a fan of the New Orleans Saints, then you've likely noticed by now the on-going conversation among those covering the team regarding one of the team's perceived weaknesses as it draws closer to the eventual start of the upcoming 2018 NFL season: the play at the linebacker position, and specifically the performance of 6th year "Sam" / strongside linebacker A.J. Klein.
In case you've missed it somehow: Klein in the recent weeks and months since last season ended, has come under fire from analysts covering the team, who have observed that the soon-to-be 27 year old former Iowa State Cyclones star didn't exactly have the season that was expected of him when he played the "Mike" / middle linebacker spot — which is essentially the captain of the defensive unit — in 2017 before he was lost for the remainder of the year and placed on injured reserve due to a a sports hernia surgery.
In fact: Klein was one of the lowest rated linebackers in the entire League in 2017, according to Pro Football Focus.
And in just this month alone: Klein has been the topic of trade rumors / scenarios (like this one from CBS.com that had him being shipped to the Buffalo Bills) and articles suggesting that he is the biggest remaining "weakest link" on the Saints defense.
The latest to "take a shot" at Klein:
The good folks over at Bleacher Report; who put out a piece this past Sunday, which singled out a player on every NFL team’s roster who could be “set to disappoint”.
For the Saints, according to Bleacher Report, that player is none other than Klein — who has since had his role changed and essentially re-assigned by Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen — as the team stands less than a month away now, from the beginning of 2018 Training Camp.
That's on top of another article published by Bleacher Report in recent weeks that criticized Klein and said that he was the most overpaid player on the entire current Saints roster.
Last year, Klein was considered a key addition for the Saints defense in 2017 NFL Free Agency; despite his lack of experience as a starter. Klein did a nice job in Carolina replacing Panthers All-Pro middle linebacker Luke Kuechly in 2016 when the star defender was injured, prompting New Orleans to reward him with a three-year, $15 million contract with $9.4 million guaranteed in March of 2017.
As they noted: it seemed like a bit of a high guarantee for a player of Klein’s capabilities, but not too out of the ordinary.
Nevertheless: Klein was named the starter at the "Mike" / middle LB spot headed into the start of last season; but struggled mightily in both pass coverage (presumably because he isn't fast enough speed-wise to cover quicker RB's running pass patterns out of the backfield or WR's running short routes that put him out of position on most plays) and also against the run (again presumably due to a lack of speed that didn't allow him to penetrate to make a play and tackle the runner quickly enough).
It's because of that series of events unfolding as they did, that led Saints team brass to sign former New York Jets linebacker Demario Davis a few months ago; and thus far they're more than pleased with the 29-year old Davis, who has already proven in OTA's and the team's recent Mini-Camp that he will be the player at the "Mike" position that Klein was not, last year.
So where does that leave Klein — and is his alleged sudden "decline" being exaggerated?
That all depends on your point of view (some of which are so brilliantly illustrated in the video just below by SB Nation / Canal Street Chronicles film analyst Walter "Deuce" Windham).
In complete fairness to Klein, the former Panthers back-up was dealing with one nagging injury or another, for most of the 2017 season.
As noted by New Orleans Advocate beat writer Joel A. Erickson: Klein was limited in OTA's, but he's on schedule with the plan the Saints' team doctors put together with an eye on the start of Training Camp, which "officially" begins in just less than a month from now.
"I'm really close," Klein said to Erickson just prior to Mini-Camp earlier this month. "I'm limited right now in OTAs, I'm out there doing team reps and individuals and everything. Right now, I think, for me, the most important thing is getting fully healthy and getting ready to hit the ground full-go when camp rolls around."
Klein eventually was held out from participating in Mini-Camp, but when he returns to Airline Drive from his Summer vacation along with the rest of the team in a few weeks from now, he's going to find that the expectations for him in 2018 will be much different than they were in 2017.
That's because Klein is expected to now line up at the "Sam" / strong side LB position, which Allen and linebackers coach Mike Nolan feel will put Klein in a much better spot to be successful.
The "Sam" / strong side LB essentially has a lot less field to cover; and that 're-assignment' should allow Klein to have a much greater impact than the one he failed to make at the "Mike" LB position last year.
"Sam" linebackers have a huge impact on the sport of college and Pro Football. Like strong safeties, they wear different hats depending on down and distance, and the scheme of that particular week's opponent.
In the Saints base 4-3 defense, the "Sam" LB is supposed to be versatile enough in both run and pass coverage; to provide strong run support and fill his gap on the run, but he also is required to drop in short zones in both Cover 2 and Cover 3 pass coverages.
At times, the "Sam" / strong side LB will also play man-to-man coverage on either the tight end or the #2 or #3 wide receiver. Depending on the tendencies of the teams you play, your "Sam" linebacker might be more of a pass coverage guy or more of a "traditional" "linebacker type (like a Rickey Jackson).
Either way: versatility and speed are critical traits for a good "Sam" Linebacker.
Klein is definitely versatile enough (he can actually play and line-up at all 3 of the LB positions), but it's his lack of speed that likely will inspire his biggest critics, to continually hammer him for his perceived shortcomings.
Klein finished last season with 54 tackles, two sacks and four passes defended in 12 games; and he actually played on the strong side when the Saints lined up in their base 4-3 defense, then shifted into the middle in nickel and dime situations.
So the move from the "Mike" / middle LB spot over to the "Sam" / strong side spot, isn't phasing him one bit.
"I don't expect it to change much, but we'll see," Klein said.to Erickson. "We have a very versatile linebacker group, we have a lot of guys who can play a lot of different positions. It's going to be exciting."
"(And) Demario's a great addition to this team."
Life isn't always fair, but for Klein it should certainly give him a new fresh start and essentially a "do over", after last year's disappointing results for him personally.
That's what's commonly referred to by older football fans as 'making lemonade, when life hands you nothing but lemons'.
Saints brass certainly will be the last ones to admit they might have made a mistake last year by signing Klein to the deal that they did, should the critics eventually be proven to be right.
Then, the hope likely would be to make the money that they've already spent on him, turn out to be at least somewhat of a sound investment.
That much however, has yet to be determined.
Is the "decline of Klein" being greatly exaggerated?