Inside linebackers, like the running backs they’re built to stop, have lost a little luster in NFL circles over the past decade or so.
Only six have been selected in the first round of the past five drafts combined, another sign of the NFL’s transition to a league focused on the pass and the defenders tasked primarily with stopping it.
But the downward trend in first-round linebackers might have more to do with the position’s changing nature.
Instead of the bulky, brutish downhill enforcers who used to man the position, the current crop of inside linebackers has to be as effective in coverage as they do against the run, and only a few prospects emerge each year who appear to be true three-down linebackers.
The New Orleans Saints embraced the trend wholeheartedly this offseason. Both of the linebackers acquired to replace the considerable production and leadership of Curtis Lofton — rookie Stephone Anthony and veteran Dannell Ellerbe — are capable cover men who can either run with running backs and tight ends or settle into a zone.
Anthony, in particular, has flashed an ability to be a difference-maker in zone coverage during the two organized team activities that have been open to the media.
In the first, Anthony dropped into a “hook zone” — dropping into the middle of the field, on the inside of the seam, at 10 yards or so — and made a leaping interception to turn a crossing route into a turnover.
Then, last week, Anthony dropped into the same zone, saw a receiver release outside of him, closed the gap and batted the ball away with a diving effort to cut through the quarterback’s window of opportunity.
“He has good instincts,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “There’s an installation each day or every other day, and there have been some real good plays and some plays where he’ll go back, watch it on film and try to make the corrections.”
Any rookie mistakes aside, Anthony’s ability to make plays in zone coverage near the line of scrimmage is an underrated part of pass defense. NFL teams pick up plenty of first downs by checking it down to a running back or a tight end in the middle of the field; eliminating that option for the quarterback takes away his safety net.
“He’s been working really hard with (assistant coaches) Joe (Vitt) and James (Willis),” defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said. “You know, he’s really looking good. And he loves football, so he’s a guy we expect to win a job.”
Ellerbe hasn’t had as many chances to flash his skills in pass coverage so far, sharing time with Ramon Humber during the first OTA and missing the second due to an undisclosed non-injury issue.
But the Saints targeted the former Ravens and Dolphins veteran in the Kenny Stills trade in part because of his reputation when healthy. Ellerbe, who opened his career in Baltimore, spent his first three seasons as the Ravens’ pass-coverage specialist before evolving into a full-time starter. When the Saints’ brass sat down to evaluate the veteran’s Miami tape, his old calling card popped off the screen.
“He’s a guy that jumped off the tape when he was playing,” Ryan said. “Now, I know he missed a lot of games last year, he played in one game and ran with Gronkowski, stride for stride with him, every step of the way on the first game.”
For the moment, Anthony is battling with veteran David Hawthorne at the middle linebacker, or Mike, position, the spot that wears the green dot and makes all the calls for the defense.
A seven-year veteran and a three-year starter, Hawthorne has been more vocal so far.
“I think some of that goes with playing the Mike position, because you are calling the defense, so there is a change when all of a sudden you are the signal-caller,” Payton said. “He is someone that I would say is a veteran leader.”
If Anthony wins the starting job, Hawthorne can slide back to the weak side, his old spot, and compete with Ellerbe.
Although he’s not as natural in coverage, Hawthorne’s an accomplished blitzer who has three sacks in each of the past two seasons, and he does have eight career interceptions.
Humber, a seven-year veteran who made six starts and 50 tackles last season, adds even more experience to the Saints’ prospective rotation.
Figuring out how the Saints will use all of those options is foolhardy at this point during organized team activities, when the players aren’t even wearing pads. No matter how the game is trending, an inside linebacker still has to be a physical presence in the run game.
But the Saints can see the potential value in the group they’ve assembled.