New Saints LB Manti Te'o aims to keep role he's had 'since Pop Warner'

METAIRIE, La. -- Manti Te’o said all the right things Thursday about being willing to play whatever position the New Orleans Saints want him in, and how the crowded competition at middle linebacker will bring out the best in everyone.

That's essentially what fellow middle linebacker A.J. Klein said last week after signing with the Saints in free agency. And that's probably what last year’s starting middle linebacker, Craig Robertson, will say the next time he visits with the media.

But Te’o, 26, didn’t shy away from his desire to emerge as the Saints’ defensive signal-caller and take on a leadership role with his new team.

“That’s been the [role] that I’ve played since Pop Warner. I’ve always been a leader, whether it was inside or outside, I’ve always been a signal-caller,” said Te’o, who was a middle linebacker/co-captain/signal-caller with the San Diego Chargers over the past four years after serving in the same role at Notre Dame, where he was a Heisman Trophy runner-up.

“And it’s not just to have on my resume; it’s because I’m most comfortable when guys depend on me,” Te’o added. “To have their trust helps elevate my game. To have that responsibility brings out the best in me, and it’s something I’m real comfortable with.”

It will be fascinating to see how things play out in the revamped middle of New Orleans’ defense. Robertson did well as the middle linebacker and signal-caller last year, leading the Saints with 115 tackles after he beat out veteran James Laurinaitis for the job.

It appeared as though the Saints were planning to make Klein their new middle linebacker when they signed the former Carolina Panthers backup to a sizable three-year, $15 million contract, with $9.4 million guaranteed on the first day of free agency.

Then they added another wrinkle by signing Te’o nearly two weeks into free agency.

Te’o’s deal (two years, worth up to $7 million, with several playing-time incentives, only $600,000 guaranteed) isn’t nearly as lucrative as Klein’s deal. But that probably has more to do with Te’o’s injury history than anything else. He suffered a season-ending Achilles tear in Week 3 of last season.

Te’o said he feels good about the pace of his rehab. And when he's been healthy, he's been a very good player, starting 34 of the 38 games he’s played, with 221 tackles, 1.5 sacks, two interceptions and a forced fumble.

Te’o had his best season under former Chargers linebackers coach Mike Nolan in 2015 -- and now Nolan will coach him again in New Orleans, which probably isn’t a coincidence. But Te’o said Nolan didn’t really do any campaigning to get him here.

“He didn’t really recruit me at all. New Orleans kind of recruited itself,” Te’o said. “But I do have a really good relationship with him and ... a level of comfort.”

Te'o isn't a dynamic athlete with high-end speed, but his smarts and instincts are big pluses. It’s possible that the 6-foot-1, 241-pound Te'o could be moved to the strongside linebacker position, or that Klein or Robertson could be moved to the weakside to split time with Dannell Ellerbe. And struggling former first-round draft pick Stephone Anthony is still in the mix -- though his path to reviving his career has gotten a lot more crowded.

One way or another, the depth was obviously important to a Saints team that has been struggling to find the right leader at middle linebacker, among other defensive woes, over the past three years. They drafted Anthony to replace Curtis Lofton in 2015, then signed Laurinaitis to replace Anthony, then demoted Laurinaitis in favor of Robertson.

There's no doubt you’ll hear the phrase “good problem to have” when the linebackers jockey for positions this summer.