It’s not for lack of trying that the New Orleans Saints haven’t been able to pinpoint a set of linebackers that the team has felt comfortable with long enough to center a defense around.
Curtis Lofton, David Hawthorne and Parys Haralson were the primary three in 2014, which gave way to Hawthorne, Stephone Anthony and Hau’oli Kikaha as the majority starters in ’15, which shifted to Craig Robertson and Dannell Ellerbe – with a dash of James Laurinaitis and Nate Stupar sprinkled in – as the predominant duo in ’16 as the team leaned more to a five-man secondary.
Robertson is back this season, the Saints added Manti Te’o in free agency, drafted Alex Anzalone in the third round and still have Stupar and Michael Mauti – who also has started games in the past – to turn to if necessary.
But free agent A.J. Klein likely will be as much of a won’t-come-off-the-field linebacker as the Saints will have this season. That’s the look he exhibited during his limited time in the Saints’ second preseason game, a 13-7 victory in which Klein had five tackles, a half-sack, a tackle for loss and a quarterback hurry.
Saints defense stood tough, allowing only one score in their preseason matchup against the Chargers.
“He’s brought a lot of the things that we were looking for and hopeful for, and so that’s exciting,” Coach Sean Payton said.
And at 26 years old, he’s one that the Saints are expecting to depend on for the next several consecutive seasons.
“One of the elements is being smart and trying to acquire as many guys that understand the game and can key and diagnose and solve problems,” Payton said. “The mental errors, missed assignments, those things will get you beat. It’s an area we’ve struggled with, quite honestly, in the past.”
Klein, who played his first four seasons with Carolina and started 21 of 44 games he played the last three seasons – some in relief of All-Pro middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, and some at outside linebacker – has fit the profile throughout the offseason and training camp.
“He’s a real good communicator,” Payton said. “He becomes kind of the signal caller of the defense. In base, he has gotten a lot of ‘Sam’ work and then in some of the nickel packages, he’s getting a lot of the ‘Mike’ work. He’s got versatility, it’s something he has done before.”
It could be just as likely that Klein can’t recall a time when he hasn’t been asked to showcase his versatility.
At Iowa State, the three-time, All-Big 12 Conference player made 21 starts at Mike, 12 at Sam and five at Will, and had at least 110 tackles in each of three seasons as a starter.
“The benefit is you understand the defense more thoroughly,” Klein said of shifting from Sam to Will. “As a linebacker, you have to know what’s going on up front, you have to know what’s going on on the backside. It helps you play faster, so it’s definitely helped me.”
His group played fast and downhill against the Chargers, who were shut out offensively (the Chargers’ touchdown came courtesy of a 99-yard interception return).
Te’o had eight tackles, a sack, three tackles for loss and a fumble recovery. Robertson contributed six tackles, a sack, a tackle for loss and a quarterback hurry. Stupar chipped in a couple of tackles and a pass defended and Adam Bighill, a free agent hopeful from the CFL, had three tackles and produced the Saints’ first interception of the preseason.
“I think we prepared well, we kind of understood what they were going to throw at us,” Klein said. “We had things to fix throughout practice (the Saints held two joint practices and a walk-through with the Chargers), but we came out, we had good energy, good leadership and the entire defense showed up.
“I think linebackers led the initial charge, which was great, and the defensive line got after the quarterbacks as well. I think we had eight sacks. That’s great momentum to build on.”
Klein said the defense has several leaders, with him being in the group.
“I think it’s important if you’re going to be put in the middle of the defense, you have to be ready to lead,” he said. “You have to have a full understanding of the defense. So 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.
“Being an open communicator, being a doer and not a talker. For me, being a leader is more leading by example 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.”