Following an 11-5 finish and a playoff run in 2017, the New Orleans Saints enter this off-season with less work to do than in previous years. The organization was tasked with escaping mediocrity the last three offseasons as the team finished 7-9 from 2014-2016. Even before those lost seasons, the Saints spent years constantly trying to replace aging players from their 2009 championship team.
Thanks to a successful 2017 off-season and the progression of additions from their 2016 and 2015 off-seasons, the Saints now enjoy a young and respectable roster. New Orleans now has the luxury of seeking out upgrades for position groups rather than scrambling to fill gaping holes.
The New Orleans Saints Need a Versatile Linebacker to Solidify Defense
The linebacker group is one spot where the Saints should look to upgrade. New Orleans has struggled to find stability at linebacker since mainstays Jonathan Vilma, Scott Fujita, and Scott Shanle began departing in 2010, but they finally put together a solid group last season.
The Saints signed A.J. Klein and Manti Te’o and drafted Alex Anzalone, all of whom were opening day starters at linebacker. Veteran Craig Robertson filled in admirably at weakside linebacker after Anzalone went on injured reserve early in the season. While these players gave New Orleans their best linebacker play in years, the Saints still lack a true impact player at the position.
Together, all of the Saints linebackers combined for just two interceptions, two forced fumbles, and five sacks. New Orleans has to get better production from this group in order to truly improve their already promising defense. Unless one or more of their current linebackers make giant strides in the offseason, the Saints need to add some new talent to make this happen.
Limited Options in Free Agency
Unfortunately, this year’s free agent class is pretty thin at linebacker. The biggest name at inside linebacker is NaVorro Bowman; a four-time All-Pro and an impactful player throughout his eight-year career. Bowman has struggled to stay healthy in recent years though, and at age 30, he may not be a long-term solution.
Another recognizable name is 13-year Kansas City Chiefs veteran Derrick Johnson, whose career appears to be winding down after a significant drop in production last season. Some of the younger top free agent inside linebackers like Avery Williamson and Todd Davis have been capable starters, but likely wouldn’t be upgrades for the Saints.
The most promising option at outside linebacker is Philadelphia Eagles veteran, Nigel Bradham. He’s a well-rounded, three-down linebacker, but there’s little reason to think the Eagles won’t re-sign him after expanding his role last season. Anthony Hitchens has become a solid run-stopper with the Dallas Cowboys, though his coverage skills need work. Other top free agent outside linebackers such as Dee Ford and Shaq Barrett are better suited for 3-4 defensive schemes.
The Saints added a much needed veteran presence to their linebacker group with the Klein and Te’o signings last year, so they’ll likely look to add talent in the draft with no clear upgrades available in free agency.
Plenty of Talent Available in 2018 Draft
The 2018 NFL Draft class is ripe with quick, versatile linebackers all over the board. Among early round prospects, Georgia’s Roquan Smith possesses the most range, and he could play at all three linebacker positions. His athleticism has drawn comparisons to 2016 Atlanta Falcons second-round pick Deion Jones, who is just the type of playmaker the Saints need at the position.
Alabama’s Rashaad Evans and Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds are two other well-rounded, speedy prospects that should be gone by the end of the first round. They’re both great at defending the run and pass while being effective pass rushers. Boise State linebacker Leighton Vander Esch showed similar versatility while recording 141 tackles last season, but his game isn’t as polished as some of the other top prospects and he may not be ready for full-time action as a rookie.
Unfortunately, nearly all of the top linebacker prospects could be gone when the Saints pick 27th in the first round. They also don’t have a second-round pick, but there should still be some impressive talent available past the second round.
Ohio State’s Jerome Baker is a fantastic pass defender in both man and zone coverage, but he struggles to break blocks against the run which pushes him down to a day two pick in most draft projections. One of the most impressive NFL combine performers was Malik Jefferson out of Texas, but he lacks aggressiveness and instincts on the field. The potential is there though, and he should be available on day two.
One intriguing late-round prospect is Shaquem Griffin out of UCF. His most obvious flaw is that he’s missing his left hand due to a prenatal condition, but Griffin has plenty of athletic upside to make up for it. Griffin managed to bench press 20 reps at the combine with a prosthetic hand, and he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.38 seconds, the fastest time by a linebacker since 2003.
Is Anzalone the Answer?
Anzalone, who went in the third round last year, generated a decent amount of hype in the preseason. He seemed to be near the ball constantly in preseason play and impressed coaches enough to win the weakside linebacker job over Robertson, a starter from the season before.
Anzalone showed great range and determination on his college tape and his ceiling figures to be pretty high. Despite his tremendous upside, his injury history was a big reason why he fell to the third round. Anzalone missed most of his final two collegiate seasons, and the injury bug has followed him into the NFL.
After suffering a shoulder injury in week four of 2017 and missing the rest of the season, it seems like health may always be an issue for Anzalone. When healthy, he could provide the athleticism missing from the Saints linebacking corps last season. But the front office can’t bet on his potential alone, and they should try to find a more reliable option.
If New Orleans is unable to upgrade this position the players they have will be adequate, but it’s hard to imagine a better defense in 2018 without improvement at linebacker. The Saints already employ a high-end player in Cameron Jordan on the defensive line, and in the secondary, they have Marshon Lattimore. It’s time for them to finally add a difference maker at linebacker.
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