Long a trouble spot for the team, last offseason New Orleans attempted to address their linebacker position with a number of moves, eventually going into the season with three all-new starters (and trading former first-round pick Stephone Anthony midseason, which permanently closed the book on Rob Ryan’s impact on the team).
However, the unit still didn’t play all that well as a whole, in part due to injury, and in part because the starters were capable but didn’t stand out. They may make more moves this offseason, but first, let’s see what they have at the position now. (I’m not going to distinguish between inside and outside linebacker, because the positions are so fluid, especially as teams mix up 4-3 and 3-4 looks and play in the nickel package so often. All off-ball linebackers will go in the same chart.)
2017 Players and Cap Information
|Player||Age||2017 Cap Hit||2018 Cap Hit||Signed Through|
|Adam Bighill||29||$191,471||$480,000||2018 (ERFA)|
|Shayne Skov||28||$86,400||$630,000||2018 (RFA)|
|Sae Tautu||26||N/A||$480,000||2018 (ERFA)|
New Signings for 2018
|Player||Age||2018 Cap Hit||Signed Through|
The Saints’ intent going into the season was to start three new players at linebacker: A.J. Klein in the middle, Manti Te’o on running downs, and Alex Anazlone as the other outside linebacker. (Stephone Anthony would, of course, be given a chance, but he once again proved to be a player without the instincts for the game to match his athleticism. The Saints received a fifth-round pick from the Dolphins for him.)
Unfortunately, not everything went as planned, as first Anzalone and then Klein went on injured reserve. Craig Robertson ended up filling some of those snaps; he was signed in 2016 to play special teams but ended up winning a starting job. He wasn’t great, but he wasn’t much of a dropoff, either. Te’o ended up taking on a much larger role as well, and while he was somewhat inconsistent, he also showed up big in some crucial moments, like with his stops against the Falcons in week 16. He’s still best suited as a two-down linebacker, though, without the speed or agility to cover pass routes or go sideline-to-sideline.
Beyond the top guys on the team already: Stupar was a special-teams ace, as was Mauti (who was surprisingly cut at the 53-man deadline but brought back after injuries). Bighill was considered another special teamer with a chance to make the 53-man, but he didn’t; he was called up later in the season, though, and spent most of the time bouncing between the practice squad and the active roster. Everyone else currently signed is pretty much a practice-squad or training-camp body; the free agents like Freeny and Hodges were basically late-season fill-ins for injuries.
In theory, if Klein and Anzalone can stay healthy, they would make a fine every-down duo, if not an excellent one. But between the fact that they haven’t so far (Anzalone battled his fair share of injuries in college as well) and that neither of them is a star, the Saints could certainly look to upgrade this position, and might even spend a first-round pick there. Even though linebacker is a relatively devalued position in the modern, pass-heavy NFL– pass rushers and cornerbacks are the most important positions on defense now– a fast, athletic linebacker who can cover routes and go sideline-to-sideline still has a lot of value.
The two guys widely considered the best off-ball linebacker prospects in this year’s draft are Georgia’s Roquan Smith, a do-it-all three-down player, and Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds, another tremendous athlete who is absurdly young (he turns 20 in May) and has the talent to develop into a star. With a draft without much top-end talent, though, there’s a good chance that both of these players are long gone by the Saints’ selection.
The next tier of linebackers includes names like Alabama’s Rashaan Evans and Texas’ Malik Jefferson, but perhaps the most intriguing name is Boise State’s Leighton Vander Esch, whose terrific combine (testing him in the 96th percentile of NFL linebackers) has him rising and suggests he has the kind of athleticism necessary to be that player I described a few couple of paragraphs ago. I myself will have to go watch his film before I can given you an opinion on the subject.
The free agent market isn’t particularly promising in that regard, either. Many of the recognizable names are older players who just don’t have the kind of juice they used to. There are a few younger guys with some talent– names like Buffalo’s Preston Brown, Dallas’ Anthony Hitchens, or Tennessee’s Avery Williamson– but the former seems already linked to the New England Patriots, and the latter two are still primarily run-stopping players. They might be guys it’s worth taking an inexpensive flyer on, but they’re not necessarily the kind of player the Saints are looking for.
It might be tough for the Saints to upgrade this unit this year. That said, if everyone can stay healthy, it’s a unit that can get by just fine as long as the secondary and defensive line continue to improve.
Since this column was on the shorter side, I thought I’d add the special teamers writeup here, even though the team seems highly unlikely to change at any of the positions:
2017 Players and Cap Information
|Player||Pos.||Age||2017 Cap Hit||2018 Cap Hit||Signed Through|
|Wil Lutz||K||24||$540,000||$630,000||2018 (RFA)|
|Zach Wood||LS||25||$465,000||$555,000||2018 (ERFA)|
Morstead has, of course, been with the team since he was drafted in 2009, and along with Drew Brees and Zach Strief, is the only member of that Super Bowl squad to remain on the team ever since. (Update: Strief retired on Monday.) He’s got a really high cap hit for a punter, and the Saints could save $4.1 million by releasing him, but given his level of performance, I’d be surprised if they did. I think he’s not going anywhere. Neither is Lutz, who strong leg (career long: 57 yards) and deep accuracy (13/16 on 40-49 yard field goals last year, and 4/5 from 50+) seems to have finally solved the Saints’ revolving door at kicker.
The Saints traded for Jon Dorenbos from the Eagles to be the long snapper before the season, but the discovery of a heart condition forced him into retirement. The Saints then signed Wood after the Dallas Cowboys released him, and though they might seek to replace him, there’s no apparent reason to.
I’d be surprised if, barring injury, any of those three positions were manned by different players in 2018.
Next time: The secondary, which will wrap up our series just in time for NFL free agency to begin.