METAIRIE — The New Orleans Saints started rebuilding their linebacking corps two years ago.
In 2016 they finished last in the NFL in pass defense, second-to-last in scoring defense and sixth to last in total defense, contributing to a third consecutive 7-9 season.
It certainly wasn’t all the linebackers’ fault, but upgrading that group was a big part of the reconstruction.
The following offseason the team signed A.J. Klein and Manti Te’o as veteran free agents and drafted Alex Anzalone in the third round. Although Klein played in just 12 games and Anzalone just four because of season-ending injuries, the defense got better and the team got better, winning the NFC South and a wild-card playoff game.
Last off-season the upgrade continued with the signing of Demario Davis as a veteran free agent. He went on to the lead the team in tackles (110), the defense got better again and the team got even better, going 13-3 and narrowly missing a trip to the Super Bowl.
Though Te’o was not re-signed this offseason, the team still has Davis, Klein and Anzalone on hand as the starting unit came into training camp with continuity for the first time in three years.
“There’s no doubt that stability has been built over the last two years,” said linebackers coach Mike Nolan, who joined the Saints at the same time the transition was beginning. “I think the other thing that helps in the stability is that they’re all intelligent football players. They’re all mature guys. They all accept their roles.”
Davis set the tone for the group last season, but Klein was third on the team in tackles and Anzalone was fourth.
“It’s a position that I thought we played better at a year ago,” head coach Sean Payton said.
Payton said the Saints were looking for “the right type of makeup and the right type of football player” when it signed Davis away from the Jets.
“Sometimes, it is hard to do and sometimes you have to wait for the draft,” he said. “However, fortunately for us, the vision was pretty clear and to his credit, he has really come through and played well. He is a good leader too.
“He is a physical player. He is not a wrap-up-and-take-down guy. He is someone that can hit you and stop you in your tracks.”
Davis was the final piece to the rebuilding of the unit.
“Some guys have been together for three years now and most of us for two years under the same coach so we have a really close bond, not just on the field, but off the field.” Davis said.
“I think that just kind of allows us to think along the same patterns. A lot of times we may change a blitz in the middle of the play without even saying it or communicating with each other because we both kind of think along the same plane.
“Whether it’s two of us or three of us on the field, we kind of found a groove of just kind of understanding how a guy plays, how a guy thinks, and it just puts us one step ahead of the offense.”
Nolan said the group is “further along” in understanding the defense this year, allowing him to spend less time on basic things and more time “on the complexities of assignments” in meetings.
Payton said Anzalone has benefited from being healthy enough to participate fully in the offseason program after spending last offseason rehabbing from shoulder surgery.
“He is real smart and very comfortable in coverage,” Payton said. “To get through a year the way he did and play as well as he did I think that there’s a confidence level then you return with.”
Though there is freshly developed stability in the starting unit, Craig Robertson is the only proven player among the backups.
]He is the only linebacker who preceded the changes and he has hung around because he’s one of the more versatile linebackers and a special teams leader.
He was the New Orleans’ leading tackler in 2016.
After the top four linebackers, only Josh Martin, a seventh-year veteran signed on the eve of training camp, has significant experience. Kaden Elliss is a rookie seventh-round draft choice and the other candidates are Vince Biegel, Darnell Sankey, Colton Jumper and Porter Gustin.