'QB' controversy? Saints' D loaded after adding Demario Davis

Linebacker Demario Davis entered the NFL in 2012 out of Arkansas State as a third-round pick with the New York Jets. Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY Sports

METAIRIE, La. -- Forget Mike, Will and Sam. The New Orleans Saints should just label all of their linebackers, "Alpha."

After signing Demario Davis to a three-year, $24 million contract in free agency, the Saints now have four guys with a history of playing middle linebacker and serving as the signal-calling "quarterback of the defense" in the NFL with the communication device in their helmets.

Last year they added A.J. Klein and Manti Te'o. The year before that, it was Craig Robertson. And second-year weakside linebacker Alex Anzalone served that role for a while in college.

It remains to be seen how the Saints will use all of them -- especially since they spend most of their time in nickel defense with only two linebackers on the field.

But it's clear they like having as many of those alpha types in the room as possible. As linebackers coach Mike Nolan put it, they consider it "a good problem to have."

"You know, when we use the term 'green dot' sometimes, people think about the helmet on the field," Nolan said of the green sticker that identifies which player is wearing the communication device on game days. "But we also talk about it in the way of, 'This guy is a leader.' We have a number of guys with leadership skills [and Davis] does have that. That did make his stock and his value greater.

"What's nice is we have about four or five guys that could wear it. Some teams sit there and they're fighting over two guys or they're thinking, 'We really don't have a guy that takes charge.' In our case, I think we've got five guys that can wear it, if not six."

Of course the Saints' linebackers are all saying the right things about how competition brings out the best in everyone and they're willing to play wherever the coaches ask -- as you would expect from veteran leaders and captains.

But they also readily admit they take a lot of pride in being counted on as that quarterback of the defense who never leaves the field.

"You know, all of us want that headset," said Te'o, who wore it with the San Diego Chargers before Klein primarily wore it in New Orleans last season when healthy. "I think it's not just to have that responsibility, but to have that trust [from coaches and teammates]."

"You know, how I'm built, I guess at the core of me I've always been 'the' guy. But that's not why I'm here," said the 29-year-old Davis, who said he was drawn to the Saints because of their history of success and great offensive play after he didn't get to experience much of either in six years with the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns. "This team has been in a great place for years, and I'm here to win. So wherever the coaches need me, I'm here to serve, I'm down with it, I'm 100 percent cool with it."

Davis and Klein, however, stressed that it's very important to them to prove they are an "every-down linebacker" one way or another.

That will come down to proving they can be an asset in coverage, which is more important than ever in the modern NFL.

Davis hasn't played much Will linebacker in his career. But the Saints think he has the traits to do it, and Davis said he has worked hard in recent years to become a better coverage linebacker.

"That's what you always want to be. I've always taken pride in being a three-down linebacker," said the 6-foot-2, 248-pound Davis, who admitted he didn't pay enough attention to detail in coverage early in his career, but now considers it one of his strengths.

"I think I got beat a lot more than I was wanting to, especially my third and fourth year in the league. I was thinking because I'm fast and I can run in space that I can guard these guys. But it's not [that simple]," Davis continued. "It's a lot more technique that goes into it. And when I started spending my offseason focusing on detailing my coverage, and adding that to being effective blitzing and effective in the run game, it helped me to have more of an all-around game.

"And I try to pride myself on being one of the most elite cover 'backers in the league."

Davis just had the best season of his career with the Jets in 2017, playing all 1,115 snaps with career highs of 135 tackles and five sacks.

Likewise, Klein had his best NFL season with the Saints in 2017 after spending his first four years with the Carolina Panthers as a backup behind Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. Klein was elected a captain in the preseason and finished the season with 54 tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble and four pass defenses in 12 games before he went on injured reserve with a sports hernia.

Klein and Te'o acknowledged that coverage is an area of their game they've tried to constantly develop, since they weren't asked to do it a lot in college or early in their careers.

"That's a big thing. It's important [to be considered an every-down linebacker]," said the 6-1, 240-pound Klein. "Obviously I came here to be playing -- to play every down. And I know I can be that type of linebacker.

"We're versatile, and I know from week to week, game plans change. Last year I got moved around, Craig got moved around, Manti got moved around. That's just the nature of the game that we're in. That's 2018. That's the NFL nowadays. You have to be versatile."

Last year in New Orleans, Klein played the strongside (Sam) position on base downs, then moved inside to Mike in nickel packages.

Anzalone was the primary weakside linebacker (Will) in both base and nickel packages before he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in Week 4. Robertson primarily took over that Will role after that. Te'o played Mike in base packages.

This season, the most likely setup is Davis at Mike, Klein at Sam and Anzalone at Will in base packages. But it's much harder to project the nickel lineup.

Perhaps it will be Klein at Mike and Davis at Will -- which we saw when they were on the field together in last week's minicamp. But the Saints love Anzalone's potential, and he might prove to be their best coverage linebacker. So that could make it an either-or decision between Davis and Klein on passing downs.

One way or another, Klein said the linebackers all have a common goal -- to prove that they're a better option than a sixth defensive back.

"Obviously for us [as a position group] we're gonna be selfish, because we don't want to be in dime," Klein said. "We want two linebackers on the field at all times."