Saints loaded up at LB in 2017, but still need athletic playmaker

Alex Anzalone showed flashes of being the athletic playmaker the Saints need at linebacker but played in only four games as a rookie because of injury. Stephen Lew/Icon Sportswire

The New Orleans Saints had a terrific 2017 offseason when it came to overhauling their linebacker position.

Veterans A.J. Klein and Manti Te'o were great finds in free agency, both at relatively bargain rates. And rookie Alex Anzalone looked like an excellent value pick in the third round of the draft before his history of shoulder injuries crept again with a season-ending injury in Week 4.

Meanwhile, veteran Craig Robertson continued to be a very reliable fill-in option after he was one of New Orleans' best value finds in free agency in 2016.

But even with all of that being said, the Saints are still lacking that dynamic playmaking outside linebacker who can track down runners from sideline to sideline and cover tight ends and running backs.

The Saints have been lacking that type of playmaker throughout the Sean Payton era, even while they've seen two of the NFL's best twice a year in their division in the Carolina Panthers' Thomas Davis and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Lavonte David.

That need for a linebacker in pass coverage could be even greater this season if the Saints let versatile safety Kenny Vaccaro go in free agency.

That's why the linebackers come in at No. 3 in my position-by-position rankings of the Saints' offseason needs:

Current depth chart:

A.J. Klein. Age 26, signed through 2019. 2018 salary and bonuses: $4.2 million. 2018 salary-cap number: $5.2 million.

Manti Te'o. Age 27, signed through 2018. 2018 salary and bonuses: $2.5 million. 2018 salary-cap number: $2.8 million.

Craig Robertson. Age 30, signed through 2018. 2018 salary and bonuses: between $1.6 million and $3.1 million, based on playing time. 2018 salary-cap number: $2 million plus incentives reached.

Alex Anzalone. Age 23, signed through 2020. 2018 salary and bonuses: $610,000. 2018 salary-cap number: $826,148.

Michael Mauti. Age 28, unrestricted free agent.

Nathan Stupar. Age 29, signed through 2018. 2018 salary and bonuses: $1.725 million. 2018 salary-cap number: $2.125 million.

Jonathan Freeny. Age 28, unrestricted free agent.

Gerald Hodges. Age 27, unrestricted free agent.

Adam Bighill. Age 29, scheduled to be exclusive-rights free agent in 2020. 2018 salary and bonuses: $555,000. 2018 salary-cap number: $555,000.

Jayrone Elliott. Age 26, signed through 2018. 2018 salary and bonuses: $705,000. 2018 salary-cap number: $705,000.

Shayne Skov. Age 27, scheduled to be exclusive-rights free agent in 2019. 2018 salary and bonuses: $630,000. 2018 salary-cap number: $630,000.

Sae Tautu. Age 25, scheduled to be exclusive-rights free agent in 2019. 2018 salary and bonuses: $480,000.

Analysis:

The Saints are finally set at the middle linebacker/quarterback of the defense position that they have tried so hard to fill over the past few years. Klein was arguably one of the team's MVPs in 2017, not only because of his solid playmaking ability, but because he helped solidify the defense as a captain and signal-caller.

Klein had 54 tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble and four pass defenses in 12 games before a groin injury landed him on injured reserve in December.

Te'o then stepped up big in Klein's absence after he was solid in a part-time role all season, the highlight coming with two tackles for loss and a fumble recovery in a Week 16 win over the Atlanta Falcons. He also had 10 tackles and a sack in the playoff loss at Minnesota.

Robertson also played a bigger role than expected for the second consecutive season, stepping up after the injuries to Anzalone and Klein to finish with 80 tackles, two interceptions and two sacks.

Te'o and Robertson are both heading into the final year of their contracts, though, which makes the need for long-term linebacker depth even more important.

Anzalone has the potential to be that type of athletic playmaker the Saints need at outside linebacker if he can stay healthy. He earned a starting job in training camp and had 16 tackles, a sack and a pass defense through four games.

Unfortunately, his health is a big "if" after he was also plagued by a series of injuries at Florida.

The Saints should make linebacker a top priority this offseason, whether they consider a free agent such as the Philadelphia Eagles' Nigel Bradham or the Detroit Lions' Tahir Whitehead or eye first-round draft prospects like Alabama's Rashaan Evans or Boise State's Leighton Vander Esch.

Previous rankings:

No. 4 Cornerbacks

No. 5 Receivers

No. 6 Safeties

No. 7 Defensive tackles

No. 8 Quarterbacks

No. 9 Offensive tackles

No. 10 Guards/centers

No. 11 Running backs

No. 12 Specialists