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Stephone Anthony's drop-off makes linebacker a 'must' for Saints

Craig Robertson was one of the most pleasant surprises for the New Orleans Saints last year, emerging as the starting middle linebacker and leading the team with 115 tackles.

Thank goodness he stepped up -- because the struggles of fellow linebackers Stephone Anthony and James Laurinaitis were two of New Orleans’ most surprising letdowns in 2016.

The Saints have decent depth at linebacker. But that depth comes with a ton of question marks: Can Anthony resurrect his career after barely seeing the field in 2016? Can starting weakside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe finally stay healthy for a full season? Will Michael Mauti re-sign and return to form as a core special teams player after having surgery to deal with ulcerative colitis?

With so many questions swirling, I thought about ranking the linebackers even higher than No. 3 on my position-by-position breakdown of the Saints’ needs. But I guess I’ll defer to coach Sean Payton, who recently labeled edge rusher and cornerback as New Orleans’ two “musts” this offseason.

Either way, all three positions belong in a tier of their own.

Current depth chart:

Craig Robertson. Age 29, signed through 2018. 2017 salary and bonuses: $1.4 million. 2017 salary-cap number: $1.8 million.

Dannell Ellerbe. Age 31, signed through 2017. 2017 salary and bonuses: $2.5 million. 2017 salary-cap number: $3.2 million.

Nate Stupar. Age 28, signed through 2018. 2017 salary and bonuses: $1.4 million. 2017 salary-cap number: $1.8 million.

Stephone Anthony. Age 24, signed through 2018 (*-Saints control option for 2019). 2017 salary and bonuses: $1.14 million. 2017 salary-cap number: $2.11 million.

Michael Mauti. Age 27, unrestricted free agent.

Jason Trusnik. Age 32, unrestricted free agent.

Sam Barrington. Age 26, unrestricted free agent.

Travis Feeney. Age 24, scheduled to be exclusive rights free agent in 2018. 2017 salary and bonuses: $540,000. 2017 salary-cap number: $540,000.

Adam Bighill. Age 28, scheduled to be restricted free agent in 2020. 2017 salary and bonuses: $472,500. 2017 salary-cap number: $467,500.

Analysis:

The Saints’ defense showed signs of improvement under Dennis Allen in his first full year as the defensive coordinator in 2016. But they could still use an injection of talent at all three levels, and they really need to think about the future at linebacker. Even if Ellerbe is fully healthy this year, he is still 31 years old and heading into the final year of his contract.

The two biggest possible splashes the Saints could make at linebacker would be spending mega-millions on New England Patriots inside linebacker Dont’a Hightower in free agency or drafting Alabama middle linebacker Reueben Foster with the No. 11 overall pick. I would be all for both moves – and if the Saints do that, they could slide Robertson over to an outside linebacker spot.

More likely, the Saints will add a second-tier free agent or target the position in the middle rounds of the draft.

The biggest wild card here is Anthony, who might be the biggest wild card on the entire roster. His rise and fall over the past two years has been stunning – from a first-round draft choice and full-time starter in 2015 to a bust who couldn’t get on the field in 2016. Payton explained last year that Anthony was struggling with basics like pass-run recognition.

The Saints’ attempts to move Anthony from middle linebacker to the strong side didn’t pan out last year, so it’s unclear where he’ll play going forward. Hopefully for the Saints’ sake, they can find at least a part-time role for the 6-foot-3, 245-pounder, since they could really use his youth and athleticism.

Previous rankings:

No. 12 Specialists

No. 11 Wide receivers

No. 10 Tight ends

No. 9 Quarterbacks

No. 8 Running backs

No. 7 Offensive tackles

No. 6 Safeties

No. 5 Defensive tackles

No. 4 Guards/centers