A.J. Klein makes presence felt, could be Saints' most impactful newcomer

"I think for me, being a leader is more showing by example," A.J. Klein said. Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

METAIRIE, La. -- The first time I really took note of A.J. Klein's intensity and commanding presence was a few days into training camp, when I thought I was witnessing a funny moment on the sideline.

The New Orleans Saints' new veteran linebacker approached rookie running back Alvin Kamara after he made a nice gain on a passing play -- appearing as though he was going to pat him on the back to congratulate him. Instead, Klein knocked the ball out of Kamara's hands.

When asked about it after practice, Klein was stone-faced when he said, "That's just competition. ... I know it was a little bit after the whistle, but I keep punching at the ball the whole entire time. If he lets go, he lets go."

Since then, that intensity and commanding presence have been hard to miss from the new "quarterback" of the Saints' defense.

Klein, 26, has embraced his role as a leader, tone-setter and playmaker for a defense that has been searching for all three of those things from the linebacker position.

"I think it's important, obviously, if you're gonna be put in the middle of the defense, you have to be ready to lead," said Klein, who was eager for this leading-man opportunity after spending the past four years as an understudy to veteran stars Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis with the Carolina Panthers. "And you have to have a full understanding of the defense. So yeah, that was a goal of mine to come in and not just to bark orders and be that guy, but to earn the respect of my teammates and coaches."

Klein said he tries to do that by "being an open communicator, and being a doer, not a talker."

"I think for me, being a leader is more showing by example," Klein said. "So I try to do my best whether it's on the field or off the field -- to show that I'm all-in and I'm ready to work for this team."

Klein wasn't the biggest headliner among the Saints' offseason acquisitions. But so far, it's looking like he might make the biggest impact of any newcomer.

The 6-foot-1, 240-pounder has been making plays in both practices and games -- highlighted by a great performance in Sunday's 13-7 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers -- while playing a dual role as the strong-side linebacker on base downs and the middle linebacker on passing downs.

But Klein's leadership and communication qualities are just as important, since the Saints have made that such a huge priority in recent years.

They didn't like what they were getting from rookie first-round draft pick Stephone Anthony in that role in 2015 because of assignment and diagnosis issues. Then they missed with veteran free agent James Laurinaitis last year because age and injuries caught up to him.

"He's brought a lot of the things that we were looking for, so that's exciting. He's having a good camp," Saints coach Sean Payton said of Klein. "I think one of the elements is being smart and trying to acquire as many guys that understand the game and can diagnose and solve problems. The mental errors and missed assignments, those things will get you beat. It's an area that we've struggled with, quite honestly, in the past."

I'll admit I was surprised how much it cost the Saints to get Klein when they aggressively targeted him on the first day of free agency (three years, $15 million, with $9.4 million in guarantees). But that could wind up being a bargain if he lives up to the potential he's showing in that field general role.

"I think any great defense that you're on, it starts with having somebody that's a great communicator. The best defenses are always noisy defenses," said Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen, who also pointed out that new veteran linebacker Manti Te'o has some of the same qualities.

"So I think that's a good situation that we're in right now," said Allen, who was asked about Klein's authoritative presence. "I think everybody has to play to their personality. And that happens to be something that he's not afraid to voice his opinion. I think it's good when you have players like that.

"They're going to do it themselves first, that's the first thing. Before you can demand it of anybody else, you have to make those sacrifices too. That's what I think makes him a good leader."

Players have noticed it from across the field, too. Running back Mark Ingram, who faced Klein several times when he was with the rival Panthers, used the word "leader" twice in a brief description of what he has noticed from Klein.

"He's been special for us so far," Ingram said.