The "intangibles". As the New Orleans Saints veteran players begin reporting later this morning at the team's Practice Facility in Metairie for the start of the team's 2018 Training Camp, it's the emphasis on intangibles that the coaching staff is stressing as difference-makers for the organization; as it seeks to become even more successful than last year's (11-5) record that eventually saw them lose in the Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs.
One of the "intangibles" that was addressed in the off-season: becoming much quicker and faster at the linebacker position.
The overwhelming desire for speed is hardly a new thing for the NFL's 32 front offices League-wide, but as the sport of Pro Football has moved toward pass-heavy offenses, it has become a top priority for defensive coaching staffs.
And clearly although the Saints linebacker corps was one of the most improved areas of the team's defense last season, one thing that they still notably lacked was having a player that was FAST ENOUGH to "hang" or keep up with similarly quicker running backs and tight ends in pass coverage.
SAINTS LINEBACKERS DEPTH CHART FOR 2018 TRAINING CAMP: Starters -- WOLB Alex Anzalone, MLB Demario Davis, SOLB A.J. Klein. Backups -- MLB Manti Te'o, WOLB Craig Robertson, SOLB Nate Stupar, SOLB Jayrone Elliott, WOLB Colton Jumper, WOLB KeShun Freeman.
Which is precisely the reason why the Saints front office chose to sign new starting "Mike" / middle linebacker Demario Davis, the former New York Jets linebacker whom Saints brass targeted immediately in the first wave of 2018 NFL Free Agency several 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 Davis brings to New Orleans besides being a player with the versatility to play multiple roles (he can play the "Sam" / strongside spot and played most of his college career at the "Will" / weakside in college at Arkansas State), is that he is a linebacker who can play off the ball and defend the run sideline-to-sideline, and cover TE's and RB's coming out of the backfield.
As noted by New Orleans Times-Picayune / NOLA.com beat writer Josh Katzenstein, Davis ran a 40 time of 4.61 seconds when he entered the League as a rookie, which ranked him 4th overall among the fastest linebackers EVER at the NFL Scouting Combine, back in 2012.
Davis, now age 29, is still pretty fast based on his VERY notable speed and quickness that was on display during last month's OTA's and Mini-Camp.
"Since I came in from college, I've always been known for my speed", Davis told Katzenstein. "I think that's a huge part of a what I bring to the table, and it helps in all aspects of my game."
Davis was tied for the NFL lead with 97 solo tackles in 2017, and he noted to Katzenstein during their interview about how important speed is for covering running backs.
Consider this: just last year alone, Davis had to cover Buffalo's LeSean McCoy, Kansas City's Kareem Hunt and Carolina's Christian McCaffrey.
And now that he's with the Saints in arguably the NFL's toughest division, the NFC South; Davis will not only get to see McCaffrey again but also will have to defend the lightning-quick RB tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman of the hated arch-rival Atlanta Falcons.
Luckily, Davis won't be the only linebacker for the Saints tasked with defending quicker and much faster opponents.
That's thanks to the return of two other players from injured reserve this yeat; both of whom will be joining Davis in the starting line-up: speedy linebacker (and last year's 3rd Round 2017 Draft pick) Alex Anzalone; who will resume his role as the team's starting as the weakside / "Will" LB; and A.J. Klein, who moves over to the "Sam" / strong side LB position after starting in the middle.
Anzalone ran a 4.63 40-yard dash at last year's 2017 NFL Scouting Combine, which ranked him 4th among linebackers. Klein, whom the Saints signed in free agency last year, ran his 40-yard dash time in 4.66 seconds, which ranked 6th among all linebackers that participated at the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine.
But 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.
Anzalone's starting role at "Will" / weakside linebacker was filled very capably by veteran Craig Robertson, but yet one can only imagine what the difference would have been if the younger and much more-faster Anzalone could have remained on the field.
In 4 games, Anzalone totaled 16 tackles (11 solo) and a sack on 158 defensive snaps.
Klein meanwhile, appeared in 12 games — all starts — before suffering a season-ending groin injury in Week #14 against the Falcons.
The Saints placed Klein on injured reserve in Week #16, and he finished the season with 54 tackles (37 solo), two sacks, four pass breakups and a forced fumble.
Bottom line: with the addition of Davis and the returns of both Anzalone and Klein, it's very likely that the Saints linebacker corps now will be as quicker and faster than it's ever been — or at least in quite some time, anyway.
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 quicker (and better) group of players that will be playing the position going forward in 2018.
You'd say that out of all of the linebackers within the position group, Davis, Anzalone, and Klein are the most athletically-gifted and fastest speed-wise; and it's the reason why you can expect to see all three linebackers begin Training Camp as the designated starters.
Make no mistake about it: STAYING HEALTHY will be the key to this group's success.
While Davis hasn't suffered any injuries that's forced him to miss any significant amount of playing time, Anzalone has been labeled as "injury-prone", which is an accurate assessment given that he hasn't played a full season since his sophomore year of high school.
It's his capability to be THE BEST player on the field (whenever he's actually playing on it) that makes the return of Anzalone the key to the unit's ultimate success or failure.