Saints' plan to fix linebacker woes: More is better

METAIRIE, La. -- For the New Orleans Saints’ revamped linebacker corps, it feels a lot like Who’s at Mike, What’s at Will and I Don’t Know’s at Sam.

But the crowded competition should begin to sort itself out Tuesday as the Saints kick off four weeks of OTA and minicamp practices.

Even new linebackers coach Mike Nolan seems to agree that the linebacker depth chart is one of the most intriguing mysteries of the Saints’ offseason.

Nolan was asked during rookie minicamp, “Do you have any idea …” And before the question was even finished, Nolan interjected, “… how it’s gonna work out?”

“No, not at all,” Nolan answered. “And I’m glad about that because the competition is gonna be there for some time.”

The media will get its first glance at practice on Thursday -- though there probably won’t be any concrete answers gathered on that day, since the Saints likely will rotate guys throughout the summer.

But the best bet is that newly signed veteran A.J. Klein will get first crack as the Mike middle linebacker and signal-caller.

That sure seemed like New Orleans’ vision when it signed Klein away from the rival Carolina Panthers on the first day of free agency with a hefty three-year, $15 million contract that includes $9.4 million in guarantees.

Then again, the Saints also signed an experienced middle linebacker in Manti Te’o less than two weeks later.

They also still have last year’s starting middle linebacker and leading tackler, Craig Robertson, on the roster.

And they still have their starting middle linebacker and leading tackler from 2015, Stephone Anthony.

“We’ll see how that goes. We haven’t mapped it out yet. We’ll keep you posted,” Saints coach Sean Payton said coyly when asked about the expected rotation at Mike. “It’s no different than at any other position. We’ve got good depth, but yeah absolutely [it’s an open competition].

“We’ve signed players this offseason, we’ve drafted players to those positions this offseason, and we’ll try to get the best combination of players out there.”

It’s just as crowded at the Will weakside linebacker spot, where incumbent starter Dannell Ellerbe may compete with the likes of Klein, Robertson, Nathan Stupar or third-round draft pick Alex Anzalone, among others.

And it’s the same story at the Sam strongside linebacker position, where Klein, Stupar, Te’o, Anzalone and Anthony all are potential candidates.

But the middle linebacker spot is the most fascinating and arguably the most important, both because that is generally considered the “quarterback of the defense” and because the Saints have struggled to find one they can depend on.

They released Curtis Lofton and drafted Anthony in Round 1 in 2015. They signed veteran James Laurinaitis to replace Anthony in 2016. They benched Laurinaitis in favor of Robertson early in the ’16 season. Then they signed Klein and Te’o this offseason.

The Saints are banking that the 25-year-old Klein is ready for a starring role after impressing as a backup to Carolina's great duo of Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis over the past four years.

Klein (6 foot 1, 240 pounds) started a total of 23 games in Carolina, with 146 tackles, four sacks, four forced fumbles and an interception.

“Do I think I could’ve played [more]? Yes. Did that time help me develop as a player? Most definitely,” Klein said after signing with the Saints.

Te’o, meanwhile, has been a full-time starter throughout his first four years with the San Diego Chargers, with 222 tackles, 1.5 sacks, two interceptions and a forced fumble in 38 games played. But his biggest problem has been injuries. He missed 13 games with a torn Achilles last year and a total of 13 games in his first three seasons with various foot and ankle ailments.

That’s why Te’o’s deal with the Saints is loaded with playing-time incentives. He signed a two-year deal worth up to $7 million, but only $600,000 was guaranteed.

Te’o, 26, knows his role could change in New Orleans. But the 6-1, 241-pounder said he hopes to continue calling signals and being a leader on the field -- the role “that I’ve played since Pop Warner.”

Robertson, a 29-year-old former starter with the Cleveland Browns, can’t be counted out since he stepped up and played a bigger role than expected last year. The 6-1, 234-pounder led New Orleans with 115 tackles, plus a sack and an interception, in 15 starts.

Anthony, meanwhile, remains the biggest wild card.

The 31st pick in the 2015 draft, Anthony started all 16 games as a rookie and led the Saints with 112 tackles, plus a sack, an interception and two forced fumbles. But the 6-3, 245-pounder struggled more than the public realized with things like reads and recognitions. So the Saints moved him out of the “quarterback” role last year and tried to switch him to the strong side, which didn’t work out.

Anthony barely played for most of last season before impressing as a fill-in starter at middle linebacker in Week 14 at Tampa Bay with nine tackles.

“I like him. And the tape I’ve looked at, whether it was last year against Tampa Bay or whether it was the year before, I mean, he made a lot of plays,” said Nolan, who will be charged with trying to help revive Anthony’s career. “So my impression is that he’s very capable.

“I think his best position is in the middle, but ... most guys can kind of play any one of ’em.”

Anthony’s best position definitely seems to be in the middle; Payton said the same thing at the end of last season. But that’s a lot different than suggesting that Anthony is the best candidate to start at middle linebacker.

Obviously the Saints aren't counting on that, since they went out and signed Klein and Te'o.

But while that crowded competition will make things tougher for individuals such as Anthony, the sheer volume of candidates should help the Saints a great deal overall.