Mike Nolan sounds like a guy who is happy to have a problem to solve.
The New Orleans Saints linebackers coach doesn’t yet know how everyone is going to fit in on defense, but he knows he has a lot of options. He has at least four players who can play middle linebacker in Demario Davis, Manti Te’o, Craig Robertson and A.J. Klein, as well as other players like Alex Anzalone, who have significant upside. And all of those players can fill multiple spots.
After spending the past three seasons trying to strengthen the linebacker position by adding top-of-the-line talent and depth, the Saints might finally have the right mix of guys to turn the position into a strength now that they signed Davis this offseason.
“Certainly right now, what’s nice (is), we have about four or five guys who can wear (the communication device),” Nolan said. “Some teams sit there, and they’re fighting over two guys, or they’re thinking, ‘We don’t really have a guy. We have good players, but they don’t really take charge.’ Other teams, I’m saying. In our case, I think we do. I know we have five guys who can wear it, if not six.”
Klein handled that role last season until the Saints placed him on injured reserve with a sports hernia. Robertson and Te’o then supplanted him.
It’s not yet clear how that will shake out this season. Klein remains sidelined, so it's tough to draw many conclusions from organized team activities. It’s possible that in the base defense, Davis will play in the middle with Klein on the strongside and Anzalone at weakside linebacker, but it's not difficult to envision other scenarios coming to fruition.
Davis served as a middle linebacker his final two seasons with the New York Jets — and considering the strengths of the players on New Orleans' roster, it might make sense to keep him in that spot, where he would likely serve as the communicator of the defense. Davis says it doesn’t matter where he plays, but when you hear him speak, it’s clear he wants to be the leader of the defense.
“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,” Davis said. “I’m here to do whatever the coaches and this team needs of me. This team has been in a great place for years. I’m here to win.”
On the field, Davis doesn’t care if he’s playing in the middle or on the weak side. Being in the middle means doing more stuff inside and matching up with running backs in the passing game, where playing on the weakside means having to make plays in space and cover tight ends more often. His skills should allow him to succeed in either role, but he's quick to point out the roles are no longer as clearly defined as they once were and that synergy exists in both spots.
Offenses now do things that change a linebacker’s responsibilities with a simple motion. If a safety rolls down in nickel coverage, the weakside linebacker might play more like a middle linebacker. If a tight end flips sides, the defense could put him on the middle linebacker instead of the guy on the weak side. It’s beneficial to have hybrid linebackers capable of doing multiple things, so they don’t have to flip positions when the offense motions.
The Saints have a handful of players who fit the profile already on the roster. Davis gives them another one. The difference is, he might raise the bar for the rest of the players on the roster.
Read more about the Saints' linebacker situation at TheAdvocate.com