Saints linebackers have new-found stability
(Fifth in a series)
METAIRIE – The Saints will enter training camp with one virtue among their linebackers that they have lacked the last two years – stability.
Head coach Sean Payton and the front office overhauled the unit after the 2016 season, tweaked it after the 2017 season and will have minimal change this summer compared to the 2018 season.
“There’s no doubt that stability has been built over the last two years,” said linebackers coach Mike Nolan, who joined the Saints at the same time the transition was beginning. “I think the other thing that helps in the stability is that they’re all intelligent football players. They’re all mature guys. They all accept their roles.
“They compete all the time and they’ve become very close. I think that’s why the group performs as a mature group because they’re mature people and that includes Craig Robertson.”
Robertson is the only linebacker who preceded the changes and he survived because in addition to being an outstanding special teams player he’s also one of the most versatile linebackers in a group that prides itself on its versatility.
He was the Saints’ leading tackler in 2016, but the Saints signed A.J. Klein and Manti Te’o as free agents and drafted Alex Anazalone in the second round.
Klein immediately became a starter and a leader before being injured. Anzalone started as a rookie, but suffered a season-ending injury early in the season. Te’o emerged as a prominent player especially after Anzalone’s injury, starting 11 games and finishing fifth on the team with 62 tackles.
Though the unit was improved and injury-plagued, the Saints felt a need to further strengthen the group last season and signed former Jet Demario Davis in one of their primary off-season moves.
Klein and Anzalone were healthy and continued to be leaders last season and Davis stepped in to become the team’s leading tackler (110). Te’o was a starter early in the season, but became a regular inactive later in the season, precipitating the team not offering the free agent a new contract.
Nolan said Davis can have an even bigger impact in 2019 than he had in 2018.
“He needs to touch the ball more often and make more splash plays that help us, not for his own recognition but for us as a team,” Nolan said. “The tackles for losses, the big hits – those are two things he did a year ago but not until the (NFL Championship) did he get a pick. You’d like to get some of those during the season and that’ll help us all.”
There are no newcomers being counted on as impact players this season as Klein and Anzalone enter their third seasons with the team, Davis enters his second and Robertson his fourth.
“They’re further along so when we do get in the meetings there are some things that you could say I take for granted that they know,” Nolan said. “I just touch on them lightly as opposed to the beginning when I might have touched on them a little more heavily about alignments and things like that.
“Now I’ll hit the alignments but they kind of know this is where I hit the line. That’s some of the stability that we have. They have more time now to spend on the complexities of assignments.”
Linebakers: Demario Davis, A.J. Klein, Alex Anzalone, Craig Robertson, Kaden Elliss, Vince Biegel, Darnell Sankey, Colton Jumper, Porter Gustin.
Departure: Manti Te’o.
Returning: Davis, Klein, Anzalone, Robertson, Biegel, Sankey.
Arrivals: Elliss, Jumper, Gustin.
Projected starters: Davis, Klein, Anzalone.
Training camp storyline: The battles here are for depth. Davis, Klein, Anzalone and Robertson appear set as the top four. That leaves everyone else fighting to find a way on to the roster, which primarily will come down to who’s best at playing special teams and handling multiple spots on the defense.
Quotable: Head coach Sean Payton on the linebacking unit: “We feel like we have pretty good depth there. Guys like Craig who’s played a lot of snaps for us. (Two) of them (Davis and Klein) came via free agency, the other one came via the draft (Anzalone). It has been a position, I thought we played better at a year ago. So that is encouraging.”
This is the latest installment of Crescent City Sports’ comprehensive Saints training camp preview. Here is the schedule for the unit-by-unit overviews:
June 27: Offensive line
July 4: Defensive line
July 11: Linebackers
July 18: Secondary (cornerbacks and safeties)
July 25: Special teams (kicker, punter, long snappers)
The Saints are scheduled to report to their Metairie headquarters on Thursday, July 25 and begin training-camp practice the next day.
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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. His blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists and Louisiana Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association. You can follow…