The Saints approach at restocking the linebacker position might have been as important as anything the team did last offseason.
Drafting Marshon Lattimore and Alvin Kamara were franchise-changing moments. Getting jumped by the San Francisco 49ers at the end of the first round for the rights to linebacker Reuben Foster and then instead selecting Ryan Ramczyk was another big moment, as was adding guard Larry Warford in free agency.
But it took years for New Orleans to settle the linebacker position. Stephone Anthony and James Laurinaitis were both big misses that played a part in the defense being unsettled and often ineffective for the better part of three seasons.
So, when the Saints found competent players like A.J. Klein and Manti Te’o, who performed well enough but also served as players who could direct traffic within the front seven, it paid dividends. The confusion and missed assignments that were hallmarks of previous teams dissipated, allowing the defense to make plays and be considered fundamentally sound.
That doesn’t mean the position is set. New Orleans had some issues in run defense and could justify adding talent at any of the linebacker spots. The run defense wasn’t as strong as it could have been last season, and there is room for a linebacker with better coverage skills and range.
The Saints could already have the answer for the second issue in Alex Anzalone, but the rookie suffered an injury that knocked him out of action early last season and his ability to fulfill that role remains a bit of a mystery. And behind him, Craig Robertson has shown that he can step up and plug the hole.
But even if everything remains the same, New Orleans has the pieces for a solid enough group. It can win with these guys, and that wasn’t the case the last few seasons. At least now there’s a foundation upon which to build.
This is another area where there aren’t any big internal decisions to be made. The only free agent of note is Michael Mauti, who is more of a special teams player and could be retained with a minimal investment.
Most of the players under contract are relatively cheap, though the Saints could create some cap space if it decides to make some changes. New Orleans could free up some space if it were to part ways with Nathan Stupar ($1.725 million), Te’o ($2.5 million) and Robertson ($1.6), though most of those players seem to be paid fair value and the investments are minor.
The only big issue here is figuring out how and where to add more talent.
New Orleans didn’t have any linebackers who really excelled in coverage last season, but Te’o and Robertson were both serviceable in different ways, posting quarterback ratings against of 95 or lower. Depending on how the team approaches the offseason, it’s possible the linebackers could end up in coverage more often next season. Finding someone with improved skills, especially in a division with several running backs who are threats in the passing game, could be a priority.
Robertson also might be a little underappreciated in the running game. The linebacker ranked eighth among outside linebackers with a run stop percentage of 8.4, according to Pro Football Focus. The statistic measures how many runs were a “loss” for the offense.
While he was signed to serve as depth and play a role on special teams, Robertson has been forced into a bigger role each of the last two seasons and has proven to be valuable depth.
New Orleans doesn’t need to sell the farm to get another linebacker, but it should have its eye out should one become available in either free agency or the draft. Upgrades could be used anywhere within the front seven.
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