2019 Summer Positions Breakdown: Our Sweet Fragile Linebacker Corp

Rewind before last season, and the linebacker position was quietly the perineal mediocre group of the defense under Sean Payton. The secondary had been under the microscope for so long that the linebackers were just assumed to be sufficient. “Sufficient” is a word I would use to describe the best of the Payton era linebackers not included in the 2009 Super Bowl defense. I’d call that squad “good”.  Sure there have been highlights and good times, but the Saints haven’t experienced murderous cutthroat shutdown linebackers since Dome Patrol, and for good reason too because it was the fucking Dome Patrol!  (Side note:  I’m a little bummed out that there hasn’t been a solid nickname for this current D that is easily the best of the Sean Payton era.  I liked “Domeland Security” whomever came up with that one.  “Check your offense in at the gate because they’ll need to go through Domeland Security before they can win.”  See?  A lot of fun being wasted without a solid nickname.)

Last season was a solid resurgence of the linebacker positions, earning themselves a deserved chip on the shoulder. The never ending problem with an abundance of talent is how to keep it all, and you can’t. You just can’t. You can be the Golden State Warriors and retain a ridiculous roster for a few seasons if you’re smart and lucky enough. You also don’t have 53 men to think about, only 15, so go fuck yourself basketball.

THE DEFINITES:

Demario Davis (6′ 2″, 248 lbs):

All he needed was to be near his homestead. Demario grew up in Mississippi and went to school in Arkansas. Davis was “sufficient” with the Jets and Browns for the most part, ultimately exploding for a season with the Jets in 2017. Aaaaaaaand by Loomis and Ireland hopes, he then exploded here.

Demario is thriving here under Mike Nolan’s tutelage. The man had 5 sacks, 74 individual tackles (110 total), 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery, 4 passes defended, and a lot of on field happy gesturing!  I don’t know if he can repeat that level of tenacity that he brought last year, but he definitely will be back with a deserved chip on his shoulder.   I’m going against the grain and predicting he has another monster year because fuck it why not, right??

Alex Anzalone (6′ 2″, 241 lbs):

“That’s Anzalone. He’s so hot right now.” is the quote I like to say to anyone around me every time he does something good a la Mugatu in Zoolander. What a fun addition to the linebacker corp with Andonis hair. We haven’t had a beautiful mane on the team since…who…?  Kyle Turley?  No wait.  Chris Ivory.  He had sweet hair.

Besides the flowing locks, Anzalone has been very promising for our Saints.  He was a bit injury prone in college, which did help to drop him to the 3rd round of the draft in 2017.  He did not disappoint in the injury department, landing on IR in his rookie season.  But that promise and hope started to pay off last year with a healthy 60 tackles (15 were assists), 3 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, and an interception.  By Anzalone’s own admission, he’s been working on the “little things” in an effort to stay healthier.  Look to him becoming a strength of this defense for the foreseeable future.

A.J. Klein (6′ 1″, 240 lbs):

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You always hate to lose your players to a rival team, but man is it fun when you get a player from a rival and it works out.  A.J. Klein is one of those guys.  He was stuck behind Luke “Whiny Face” Kuechly in Carolina, albeit getting a steady increase in game time for 4 seasons, and coming over to the “darkside” gave him a chance to start and be more of a leader.

For 2 seasons now he has molded into a solid player under Mike Nolan and Dennis Allen.  His numbers aren’t spectacular just like Anzalone, but he’s been good.  Klein is the kind of player that is opportunistic.  By that I mean he would’ve fit in well with the 2009 defense.  He puts up solid numbers and has a good nose for the ball.  Last year alone he had 69 tackles (27 were assists), 2 sacks, 2 fumble recoveries, and an interception.  He had decent numbers in 2017.  The difference?  Mike Nolan is the best linebacker coach in the league.  Look for A. J. to have another good season as well.

Craig Robertson (6′ 1″, 234 lbs):

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I’ve found a lot of fans split on Craig Robertson.  Is it his age?  Old gramps here is 31 years old (Davis is 30, Klein 27, the rest are chirren).  Some people think he eats up too much cap space to not be a starter.  Some people see his first year with the Saints in 2016 as a sign that he should be an every down player.  Some people think he’s overrated.  Some think he should be trade bait.  I’ll explain Craig Robertson like this:  Remember last year our offensive line was falling apart towards the end of the season, and we were all realizing how awful the absense of Senio Kelemente was?  If you weren’t like me and pathetically crying for another Senio Kelemente to back up the O line, then you need to pay more attention.  Or just keep reading my blogs!  Anyway, Craig Robertson is the Senio Kelemente of the linebacker group.

The guy can step in and play at all three spots.  He puts his head down and works.  When he comes in, he rocks steady like Megan Rapinoe (or pick your aging sports sub-in reference thats awesome).  Since joining the Saints in 2016, Robertson has been great.  Last year is a bit tricky statwise because the starters had such a great year.  But he still managed to run stuff regularly, get a sack, and rack up 11 solo tackles (14 total).  Again, it doesn’t compare to his previous two seasons that look like Demario Davis’ numbers, but you have to keep in mind that Robertson is a sub-in now, partly because his Logan’s Run palm crystal started blinking.  Obscure and dated reference!  Eat my shorts, millennials.

AND THE REST:

Remember in the last post where I lazily dismissed reporting on the lines until we had some training camp intel?  Well egg on my face if this isn’t a bit of the same.  My first thought on these kids that are here now vying for spots is “who the fuck are these people??  Is Kaden Elliss our next best backup as a 7th round draft pick??  We are gonna be desparately grasping at straw linebackers right before the season starts.”

But let’s talk Kaden Elliss first before we get into all of that.  This past draft was a bit misleading because some positions were overdosed and NFL team needs were more targeted.  That allowed, in part, for the Saints to get Alizé Mack and Kaden Elliss in the 7th, and they’re both players with a lot of potential.

Kaden Elliss (6′ 3″, 240 lbs):

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Kaden comes from Mormon country, so he’s in good company with that Taysom fellow.  His dad played 10 years in the NFL with the Lions, and then became a defensive coach at Idaho…where Kaden went.  I hate these situations by the way.  Anyone reading this that’s played sports and had to deal with a teammate whose parent was a coach is FUCKING ANNOYING.

That said, some of these kids in these situations are great guys that feel that tension and it drives them further to prove themselves.  Elliss seems to be that type by all accounts I’ve dug up.  He’s still very raw and developmental, but as I’ve stated before, we have Mike Nolan.  Kaden favors the SAM side, but doesn’t have a developed linebacker role.  Look to him to be fufilling his rookie contract growing with the Saints.  The kid stays in the picture on the practice squad hopefully.

Vince Biegel (6′ 3″, 246 lbs):

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Mr. Biegel comes to the Saints by way of the Packers in 2017 at a time when we enjoyed plucking players off of their waivers.  He’s an interesting case.  His combine stats says he’s undersized.  The Saints measured him, and he seems quite okay in the linebacker size spectrum or LSS (trademark pending) that I created.  Basically, the way it works is if you’re over 6 foot and bringing 240-270 lbs of dude to the party, I’ll believe you if you tell me you’re an NFL linebacker.  Sold!

Vince has some good time put in with special teams.  When you read his stat sheets, you can see why the Saints are high on him.  Biegel has been a fun, good character and leader on any team growing up.  His deficiencies are correctable (mostly involving footwork and reads), and he seems eager to learn by all accounts.  So why shouldn’t we see more from Mr. Biegel?  I really couldn’t tell you at this point.

Porter Gustin (6′ 5″, 260 lbs):

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Or you can simply be some sort of Viking monster like Porter Gustin and raise eyebrows.  He’s a Utah native, which means he’s likely a Mormon (something is going on!!??)  A former Trojans product (the USC team, not the condoms silly.  Because a Trojan product…well…) that was used basically how Kikaha was invisioned as being, is another interesting product.

Porter’s issues make him a long shot.  Most notably, he had a slew of injuries the last two seasons at USC.  He’s got crazy size and strength, but he’s lacking in a clear skill set.  His combine results were all over the map.  He’s good between the tackles rushing, but not from the outside.  He can defend the run pretty well, but not the pass.  Etc etc.  Now as I’ve said before, Mike Nolan is amazing.  If Porter Gustin is still on the team and a badass in two seasons, consider Mike Nolan the Linebacker Whisperer.  Oh and also, did I mention this guy played 4 sports at once??  That’s really hard to do in today’s modern American school athletics world.  I’m hoping for the practice squad, but I think he’s a cut unfortunately.  If so, he could easily be sitting on another roster’s practice squad.

Colton Jumper (6′ 2″, 229 lbs):

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First of all, I love the name.  I’m pretty sure I played as a Colton Jumper in one of the Call of Duty games.  For anyone not keeping score, this is Colton’s second round with the Saints.  He tried out last offseason as a walk on, but ultimately he didn’t makes the cut.  That did not disparage Colton.  He ended up starring as a linebacker AND a safety for the Memphis Express (hopefully not at the same time) in the (yes that’s right) American Alliance of Footballing or Allied Americans for Footballishness…that thing.  AAF.

Colton has some highlights, both as a starting mike linebacker with the Tennessee Volunteers and the Memphis Express.  One of his main issues is bulking up.  He needs another 15 pounds on him for the NFL (see above’s LSS)(patent pending).  But it’s not just needing a sumo diet, Jumper needs more time in the incubator, and the problem for him is that NFL teams don’t wait that long for someone that’s too developmental unless they possess some freakish raw talent (Cyril Grayson’s speed.  Read my wide receivers blog!).  Ya got heart, Lionheart, but you just don’t know when to quit!

Darnell Sankey (6′ 0″, 247 lbs):

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Well the first thing that stands out about Darnell Sanskey is not that he was signed by the Broncos as a UDFA in 2016, but that since then he’s been on 8 teams.  9 if you count two brief stints with the Colts.  And that just gets us to 2018.  He spent all of last year on the Saints practice squad.  And to be honest, there’s not a lot of intel on him.  That’s why I chose the above photo.  I’ll be curious to see what he does during training camp now with a year in this system.

Sanskey comes from a small school and is shaping up to be the Little Engine That Could.  At Sacramento State, he put up some bullish numbers, and stayed healthy for the most part.  He also played some defensive end.  And now in the NFL, he’s doing enough to get the looks and curiosity, but he’s ultimately striking out worse than most baseball pitchers.  But the Saints see something in him, so maybe he’s found a home here.  Maybe it’s his experience attributing to being another Kikaha style.  They kept him around for some reason.  I think he stays developmental at best though.

WRAPPING IT UP:

The short answer is that we might be desparately grasping for straw linebackers.  The confidence in the health of the 4 aforementioned players is what’s dependent on that.  There’s very little support in the wings, especially with all these young bucs that are all developmental projects.  But in the youth is promise too, so there’s a quiet “mini-competition” going on here that’s a bit under the radar because of the running backs, wide receivers, and both the lines.  Geez, when I say it like that it sounds like we’re in dire straits.  We’re fine people.  And if any of these backups get tossed in the ring when it counts, an offensive coordinator will see it and feast on it.  It’s what it is if it reaches that state.  I’m projecting the linebacking corp as Davis, Klein, and Anzalone (so hot right now.  Anzalone.), with Robertson and Biegel backing them up.  If two linebackers could make it to the practice squad, I’d say Elliss and Gustin.

I’ll be at training camp this Saturday the 27th.  I’m so happy football is back.  It gets so awkward when I have to talk other sports with friends and coworkers.

Me:  “So…hockey…did your Flame Tires win”
Coworker:  “You mean the Red Wings??  No they didn’t.”
Me:  “…bummer…”
Coworker:  “…do you watch hockey?”
Me:  “ummmm…well…no.”

So anyway training camp!!  DM me on Twitter!  I’m always down for meeting fellow Saints fans.  WHO DAT!?!?!

 

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