Saints Free Agency Profile: Linebackers
More than a generation ago, the New Orleans Saints had a linebacking corps that most considered to be the best in the league, and among the best collection in NFL history. Vaughan Johnson, Sam Mills, Pat Swilling and Hall of Famer Ricky Jackson were known as The Dome Patrol. The group single-handedly took over games, and were feared throughout the league.
The last of that devastating linebacking corps departed with Sam Mills in 1994. Since then, the New Orleans Saints have had a few individual linebackers perform well, such as Jonathan Vilma, but have often struggled as a unit. New Orleans has tried to address this issue through free agency (Curtis Lofton, David Hawthorne), trade (Dannell Ellerbe), and high in the draft (Stephone Anthony). The result has been a linebacking corps that still lacks team speed, is highly vulnerable in short to mid-range pass coverage, and has offered little in pass rush capability.
Today, Who Dat Dish will continue our series of free agency previews by profiling the Saints linebackers. We will look over players currently under contract, the team’s contract priorities, free agent possibilities, and how highly New Orleans should prioritize the position this offseason.
SAINTS LINEBACKERS ON THE ROSTER
Dannell Ellerbe, OLB (age 31)
Ellerbe is among the Saints most talented defenders. The only problem is that he can’t stay on the field. The 8-year veteran has played in roughly half of the Saints games since being acquired from Miami in 2015. Ellerbe’s presence in the lineup over the second half of 2016 saw the Saints defense give up almost 10 points less per game. Ellerbe has always been strong in pass coverage and applied good pressure on the quarterback when called on to blitz. His talent is undeniable, but the Saints need Ellerbe’s number 59 in the lineup, not on the sideline.
Craig Robertson (age 28)
When New Orleans signed Robertson as a free agent from Cleveland last spring, he was expected to merely solidify depth. Instead, the 5th-year pro was perhaps the team’s best free agent acquisition in 2016. Robertson’s 115 tackles led the team, and he showed tremendous versatility. When the James Laurinaitis Experiment failed at middle linebacker, the Saints had to move Robertson inside from his outside linebacker position. He provided stability at that spot and proved himself to be a solid starter at whichever position the Saints need him.
Stephone Anthony (age 24)
Anthony began his career with a bang. The 31st overall selection from Clemson started immediately at middle linebacker in his rookie season. His 144 tackles were a team record for rookies. The combination of power and athleticism had some thinking he would be the next star on defense. Coaches moved Anthony to an outside spot last preseason after the signing of James Laurinaitis, and Anthony struggled from the get go. A preseason leg injury slowed his development, and there were rumors that he was unable to grasp coordinator Dennis Allen’s game plan. Anthony’s 3 starts and 12 tackles in 2016 now have many thinking that he is a first round “bust”. 2017 will be a vital season for him to prove otherwise.
Nate Stupar (age 28)
Stupar’s signing from Atlanta last offseason was meant to solidify their special teams play. The former Penn State product also started 6 games at linebacker. He is athletically limited, but a smart and hard-nosed player who can give New Orleans good depth.
SAINTS FREE AGENT LINEBACKERS
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Michael Mauti (age 27)
Mauti has given the Saints very good special teams play and has provided decent linebacker depth during his two years in New Orleans. Son of former Saints kick returner Rich Mauti (1977-83). Mauti’s career may be in some jeopardy, due to ulcerative colitis surgery that ended his 2016 season.
Sam Barrington (age 26)
The Saints signed Barrington in the second half of the 2016 season to provide depth as injuries mounted in their linebacking corps. Coaches seem to like Barrington, but he is limited to what he brings to a defense.
FREE AGENT POSSIBILITIES
John Simon, OLB (age 26-Texans)
Simon is an underrated pass rusher on a deep Houston defense. Originally drafted from Ohio State in the 4th round of the 2013 draft by the Ravens; he signed with the Texans in the 2014 preseason. In three seasons with Houston, Simon had only 12 starts but still had 10 sacks in limited duty. Simon would be an “under the radar” signing that may very well pay similar dividends to the Craig Robertson signing of last spring.
Kevin Minter, ILB (age 26-Cardinals)
Minter has been a very good linebacker for a very good Arizona defense. The former 2nd round pick from LSU has started all 32 games in the last two seasons, contributing 175 tackles with 5 sacks. He is adequate in pass coverage but is more of a flow-to-the-ball type linebacker. The Cardinals already have a lot of money tied up in other defenders, so there is a good chance that Minter will be allowed to hit free agency.
Alex Okafor, OLB/DE (age 25-Cardinals)
The 6’5 264lb Okafor is more of a 4-3 defensive end, but was often a stand-up pass rusher in the Cardinals defense. He does have 13.5 sacks since 2014, but only 5.5 in the last 2 seasons. Okafor will probably be available on the open market, because Arizona will likely spend to keep other edge rushers Chandler Jones and Calais Campbell on the roster.
AJ Klein, ILB (age 25-Panthers)
Klein has played behind Luke Kuechly over his 4 years in Carolina, so many fans may not have heard much about him. Rest assured, NFL general managers know exactly what the former 5th round choice from Iowa St can do. Klein has good size, underrated athletic ability, and solid fundamentals. Klein needs to improve his pass coverage, but any linebacker out of former Panthers coordinator Sean McDermott’s scheme is worth a good look.
Zach Brown, ILB (age 27-Bills)
After the debacles of Jairus Byrd and CJ Spiller, no one could blame a Saints fan if they never wanted to see another signing from Buffalo again. Still, Brown has been a tackling machine over his 5-year career. After spending his first four years in Tennessee, Brown signed a 1yr contract this past off season with Buffalo, where he led the Bills with 97 solo tackles. Brown’s career 17 passes defensed, 7 interceptions, and 14 sacks prove that he is a versatile every down linebacker. With Sean McDermott now the head coach in Buffalo, Brown may not even make it to the open market. If he does, the first call he receives should be from new Saints linebacker coach Mike Nolan.
Barkevious Mingo, OLB (age 26-Patriots)
Mingo is only worth mention here because his name has been consistently linked as a potential Saints signing. Simply put, the former 6th overall pick from LSU is a draft BUST. If New Orleans were to sign Mingo, it should only be on a cap-friendly 1yr “prove it” deal. And they’d sure better have other options already in place.
Lawrence Timmons, ILB (age 30-Steelers)
Timmons might be one of the most underrated linebackers in the storied history of Steelers at this position. He has shown excellent versatility from both an inside an outside position over his 10 year career. Timmons has been known both for his solid pass coverage, as well as his ability to pressure the passer.
A closer look at Timmons will reveal something else, however. His body is breaking down, and he no longer has even close to the range he once had. To his credit, he has missed very little playing time. But the Steelers have schemed to protect Timmons, trying to keep him within the tackle box. Know this about the Pittsburgh Steelers, if a veteran player such as Timmons leaves, it is often because they already know that the player is on the last legs of his career. Lawrence Timmons carries with him all of the red flags that were ignored by Saints management in the James Laurinaitis signing of 2016.
The Saints have already made one significant move here by hiring Mike Nolan as new linebacker coach earlier this week. The linebackers Nolan has developed over his career is almost a “Who’s Who” of NFL linebackers. He does have a couple good pieces to work with. Craig Robertson is a quality player, Dannell Ellerbe is a stud when he’s on the field, and it would be unwise to give up on the potential of Stephone Anthony quite yet.
Still, the linebacking position has been devoid of talent for a number of years now. The nightmare of Falcon running backs Devontae Freeman and Tevin Coleman or Arizona’s David Johnson completely taking over games cannot be repeated in 2017. The desperate need for an edge rusher on this defense is well documented. But New Orleans needs a playmaking linebacker just as badly. Expect the Saints to look closely into adding 1 or 2 through the draft, as well as free agency.
OFF SEASON PRIORITY = HIGH
Next, Who Dat Dish will look over the Saints cornerbacks.