Two years after New Orleans drafted Stephone Anthony in the first round, the Saints are once again doing an awful lot of work on the top linebacker prospects in the 2016 draft class.
Alabama's Reuben Foster, Vanderbilt's Zach Cunningham, Ohio State's Raekwon McMillian and LSU's Kendell Beckwith have all visited New Orleans, a sign that the Saints might be shopping for a difference-maker at the position despite the bevy of free agents the team has signed the past two offseasons.
An ability to make reads and process information is arguably the most important trait the Saints, or any team, has to evaluate at the position.
"It's all the mental game," McMillian said. "You can be the best physical player in the world. ... but to get on the field you have to be mentally gifted."
Anthony's struggles at the NFL level have made the need for those traits obvious.
An incredible physical specimen who possesses all of the size and speed a team could want, Anthony has been hamstrung by an inability to read plays and to pick up the defense, the chief reasons he was moved out of the middle after making 112 tackles as a rookie.
A player who handles the headset has to have full command of the defense.
McMillian has had that responsibility for years. A mainstay in the tradition of the long line of middle linebackers Ohio State has produced, McMillian has been the man at the helm of a College Football Playoff-caliber defense for a long time.
"I did it the last three years at Ohio State with a very complex defense, but yet simple at the same time, with two different coaches on the back end ,so I’m very comfortable with it," McMillian said. "Coach (Greg) Schiano brought a more NFL mentality. Coach (Chris) Ash was a more conservative college football coach…. They both had things that will help me at the next level."
Understanding the entire defense and being able to communicate it clearly to the other 10 guys on the field is key for the man in the middle.
And even if a weak-side or strong-side linebacker doesn't have to handle that responsibility, he has to have the instincts. A great linebacker, like Carolina's Luke Kuechly, almost never takes a false step.
Then the athleticism takes over, and there are some freakish athletes in this linebacker class, most notably Foster, an aggressive, violent run-and-hit player, and Cunningham, who has incredible length.
Foster has drawn some criticism for an ability to learn, but his college head coach believes it won't be a problem.
"If you put on the film, he’ll be able to tell you chapter and verse, because that’s how he learned it," Alabama coach Nick Saban told The MMQB in March.
Cunningham, who played at Vanderbilt, says he's comfortable picking up any scheme.
And both he and Foster have one asset that NFL teams need in spades from linebackers these days.
Range. In a passing game, a linebacker has to be able to run with backs and tight ends in coverage, as well as closing on the ball in zone coverage.
"I’m a lengthy player, a pretty fast player, speedy, a sideline-to-sideline player," Cunningham said. "That and my instincts has helped me to be a good player."
If New Orleans dips its toes into the linebacker pool this April, it would likely be for a player the Saints believe can be a star; New Orleans has spent two offseasons accumulating solid veteran depth at the position.
Whoever that player might be, the job is simple, even if it sounds complicated.
"Making plays," Cunningham said. "If you’re able to do that that’s the sum of the job, really."