Saints linebackers bring solid mix of talent, versatility, experience
The New Orleans Saints at one time featured some of the better linebackers in the NFL over the history of the franchise.
Of course, the famed Dome Patrol from the late 1980’s and early 1990’s consisting of Canton inductee Rickey Jackson, Sam Mills, Vaughn Johnson and Pat Swilling have been proclaimed by many as the best group at their position in league history.
This year’s Saints linebacking corps is not quite to that level (who is?) but they are a solid bunch.
The position is currently manned by a mix of experiences and physically gifted players. Three of the top four tacklers in the group were brought in through free agency while one was a third round draft pick by the team. They all seem to mesh as a cohesive group.
“We’ve got some experience at the position,” explained Saints linebackers coach Mike Nolan, who enters his 32nd campaign coaching in the NFL. “This is my third year here. We’ve added experience to the group.”
Demario Davis, the team’s leading tackler in 2018, his first season in New Orleans has averaged 110 tackles per season throughout his career. He had exactly that many for the Saints last year.
A.J. Klein was third on the team in tackles with a career-best 70 stops. Now in his seventh pro campaign, he has solidified his spot in the lineup after spending his first four years with Carolina as a part time starter.
Alex Anzalone comes off of a 59-tackle campaign as a former third round pick in 2017 who only played in four games as a rookie due to injuries. However, his talent was apparent from the moment he arrived to New Orleans.
Craig Robertson has misleading stats. Much of his work has been done as a part timer who also makes an impact on special teams. When afforded the opportunity, he produces. The former Cleveland Browns linebacker had 131 stops in 2016 and 77 the following season.
Through different career paths, the foursome has found a home together with the Saints.
“It’s a good, solid group. They all have high aspirations to get better. They work hard. It’s a good group that helps us win games and they have improved each time they’re on the field,” Nolan said.
One new arrival this season, surprising seventh rounder Kaden Elliss, should compete for playing time in the base defense as well as special teams. “He has done a very good job,” continued Nolan. “He played in multiple positions in college. I see that flexibility in his play. We’ve left him at inside LB for now, but he has shown versatility. He has shown the ability to make plays. He still has a lot to learn about the position because he has played DE, inside and outside on the line, as well as inside and outside. He’s a guy to watch during preseason from a fan’s standpoint.”
The 6-foot-2, 238-pound rookie out of Idaho understands the importance of consistency throughout, as well as making a mark on special teams. The latter is how players like Eliss often make their first mark in the league.
“Yes, it is very important,” Elliss agreed regarding special teams impact. “I keep working my heart out. I keep working to get better.”
Eliss has rewarded the team with nine tackles during preseason thus far and has paced the defense with the most reps during the first two exhibition contests. He is surprised at the opportunities afforded to him so quickly.
“I wasn’t sure how that was going to go. It’s one of those things coming in that you hope so, but you really don’t know. It’s one thing to study the play book, but to get reps. To go in and do it well or make a mistake and learn from it. To feel it. I’m so grateful for the opportunity. The coaches and vets have been helpful to me.”
Elliss’ father Luther was a 12-year NFL veteran and two-time Pro Bowler. For Kaden, that has provided him with valuable dialogue when father and son converse following a game.
“My dad is definitely coaching me up in a lot of things,” he emphasized. “It’s great to have it that was. It’s great to hear it from my dad who has been here and done this.”
Let’s get back to Robertson, a Swiss Army knife-type of player who has been invaluable after coming to New Orleans as a free agent after five seasons with the Browns. He has been asked to fill in an assortment of roles but his humble nature and versatility combine to make him so valuable to a contender. Robertson comes to play at full speed each time on the field, earning total respect from fellow teammates and coaches alike.
“Craig does an outstanding job as a team leader,” said Nolan. “He’s one of the leaders of this football team, especially on special teams. That does not short change his ability to be a defensive leader also. Craig is a very good football player, very versatile, very smart. The guys respect him a tremendous amount. It’s rare that you have a guy who is backup, but gets as much respect as a starter does.”
The sum of all parts of the Saints linebacking group may not end up among the greats of all time, but it’s a winning collection of talent for a Super Bowl contender.
LAGNIAPPE: You might also want to keep tabs on two-year veteran Darnell Sankey, who quietly leads the defense with 10 total tackles for the preseason. The former four-year starter at Sacramento State was added to the Saints practice squad last season in September after short NFL stops with the Broncos, Raiders, Chiefs, Vikings, Colts, Ravens and Lions. Perhaps the practice squad is his destiny again while waiting for a chance to shines.
- < PREV Some but not much has changed for the Saints as training camp ends
- NEXT > Video: Ponchatoula shines in scrimmage at East Jefferson
Born and raised in the New Orleans area, Rene Nadeau has been involved in sports ever since his earliest memories. Rene played basketball, wrestled, ran track, and was an All-District running back in football at John F. Kennedy High School. He went on to be a member of the LSU football program, developing a passion for the game in even…