The Saints weren’t happy with how things went at linebacker last season.
The group didn’t perform as hoped, and injuries quickly revealed a lack of depth. Street free agents ended up playing a good amount of snaps. The communication never came together, and the position was an issue all year.
So, when free agency opened, the team added quality and quantity: James Laurinaitis, Craig Robertson and Nate Stupar were brought aboard. Laurinaitis is projected to start at middle linebacker, with Robinson and Stupar providing depth.
That means changes are coming. Stephone Anthony, who played middle linebacker last season, likely will move to the strong side. Dannell Ellerbe will continue to play weakside linebacker.
Will that be enough? The Saints hope Laurinaitis will solve the communication issues the defense had last season and help settle everything down. And there’s hope Robertson will provide enough coverage if Ellerbe suffers an injury.
Entering the offseason, it looked like weakside linebacker would be one of the Saints’ biggest needs. That has changed. Bringing in more talent in the draft would be a welcome development — Ohio State’s Darron Lee or USC’s Su’a Cravens would be nice additions — but there is no longer an immediate need.
Where things could get really interesting is if Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith or UCLA’s Myles Jack slides. Both players are among the most talented prospects in his year’s class, but both are working their way back from knee injuries that could affect their draft stock.
Smith, who likely will miss at least this season, is the scarier of the prospects since he could be facing nerve damage. He likely wouldn’t be an option for the Saints until the second round, and even then it would hard to pick him unless your doctors believe he will be ready by 2017.
Jack’s injury prevented him from running the 40-yard dash this offseason, but there shouldn’t be as much concern about him. It has been said that some teams are dropping him off their boards, while others are more optimistic. That could create an opportunity for the Saints, if they view Jack favorably.
Jack is among the most talented players in this class and has a unique skill set. Although he’s entering the league as a linebacker, he proved in college he can cover receivers in the slot and even can walk outside and match up with them on the outside.
In the NFL, it looks like Jack could play a variety of positions. It’s easy to see him playing weakside linebacker, strong safety or even just serving as a jack of all trades in the box. He could be a weapon.
There is some risk involved with taking Jack. But even if his knee acts up down the line, having him for five or six healthy years would make the pick worthwhile. If he’s available, it’s hard to imagine there would be better value when the Saints come on the clock.
Chances are Jack won’t slip all the way to the 12th pick. Some of the concern floating around could be misinformation planted by teams hoping he slides. The Saints can hope, but chances are someone in the top 10 will feel comfortable enough to grab him.
Smith is the bigger question. He will fall and might be there for the Saints in the second round. What teams need to determine is if he will be fine in the future or if he’s a gamble. It’s impossible to analyze the situation without knowing those answers.