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Saints' no-name linebackers caught in an NFL evolution

by J.W. Miller on 05/15/17

The Saints went into this offseason with one goal: To improve a porous and often humiliating defense. Have they achieved their goal? Barring any 11th hour acquisitions, the unqualified answer at this point is, well, uh, maybe! The reason for my spring skepticism rests with one position and one that traditionally has been the backbone of a stingy defense. I am talking about linebacker. The Saints have added some warm bodies since last year, but none have been penciled in as definite starters. 


As Coach Sean Payton declared at the end of the three-day rookie minicamp Sunday: “Going into the season, we’re going to have competition. There won’t be any assumed starting positions; there will be very few of those. We’ve signed players this offseason, we’ve drafted players to those positions this offseason and we’ll try to get the best combination of players out there.” When I hear comments like that, it makes me think of the coach who bragged about having three quarterbacks who were competing for the starting job. A wag in the back of room raised his hand, stood and declared: “Coach, if you have three quarterbacks, you don’t have A quarterback.” The implication is that competition is good, but in order to excel, a team must have proven starters at key positions. 


Traditionally, linebacker has been one of those positions that darned near guaranteed success. Who Dat Nation might be spoiled when we talk about linebackers because around here we still think of the Dome Patrol. Rickey Jackson, Sam Mills, Vaughan Johnson and Pat Swilling all were invited to the Pro Bowl in 1991, the only time four players at the same position from one team have made a Pro Bowl together. But times change. Should we be upset because the Saints do not appear to have one recognizable linebacker who could dent the fans’ vote for the Pro Bowl? 


Before we condemn our local heroes, maybe we should look at the value of the linebacker position in the modern NFL. Just how key is the position in a world that seems more intent on hybrid positions, floating fronts and dime coverages? This ain’t your 5-4 Okie anymore, Alice! A year ago, NFL.com’s Bucky Brooks ranked 24 identifiable positions on the field, starting with everybody’s No. 1, quarterback. The second most important position was pass-rusher, whether it comes from a defensive end or an outside linebacker. Middle linebacker, the position glorified by guys named Ray Lewis, Jack Lambert, Dick Butkus and Mike Singletary was the ninth most important position overall and fourth-most important defensive position behind left cornerback and defensive tackle. Weakside LB ranked 12th overall while strongside LB ranked 19th. That suggests the position is not as important as it once was. Or is it our perception?


The evolution of offenses has altered the emphasis on burly, run-stopping linebackers and placed greater emphasis on speed. The tight end and running back positions are filled with speedy big guys running post routes and running backs slithering out of the backfield catching 70 passes a year. That has forced defenses to adjust with speed. The Arizona Cardinals have even come up with a new position name – “moneybacker” - for the defensive player who can go in the box and take on offensive linemen and are also speedy enough to cover a tight end or back. Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor, a four-time Pro Bowler on one of the league’s most dominant defenses, has become the symbol of physicality in an NFL secondary. Chancellor’s time as a linebacker comes in sub packages and he’s a strong safety in Seattle’s base defense. 


The transformation of strong safety into a linebacker takes one traditional 'backer off the field because today's defense has less to do with adding size to the secondary than adding speed to the front seven. That leaves a team with linebackers who are still willing to be as physical as any other linebacker but with the speed to help nullify the matchup issues presented by speedy running backs, slot receivers or giant tight ends? Does that description fit the Saints’ personnel? 


For the record, the returning players are Dannell Ellerbe, Craig Robertson, Nate Stupar, Stephone Anthony, Hau’oli Kikaha and Travis Feeney. Free agent pickups include A.J. Klein from Carolina and Manti Te’o from San Diego, and Adam Bighill from the Canadian League. In the draft, New Orleans selected Alex Anzalone in the third round and then signed Sae Tautu as an undrafted free agent. Not exactly a group to be confused with the Dome Patrol! But in today’s NFL, maybe they don’t need to be.

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