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Saints program cover story: Craig Robertson

Middle linebacker proven to be huge free agent pickup

The best photos of LB Craig Robertson this season

Like most athletes, Craig Robertson knew fairly early exactly what he wanted to do with his life, how he wanted to see events unfold, where he would wind up plying his trade as a professional.

You don't craft a five-year NFL career – the first four in Cleveland, after being undrafted in 2011 – without having a plan and knowing how to implement it. So it's no surprise that one day in the near future, the full expectation is to see Robertson standing on a sideline, overtly or covertly cheering on his team, then returning to work the next morning to handle whatever crisis the day presents to him as a high school athletic director.

Wait? A high school athletic director?

Absolutely, that's the end game for the New Orleans Saints linebacker after he has played his final NFL game. Robertson will lead the Saints' defense Sunday, when New Orleans (4-4) takes on the Denver Broncos (6-3) in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Robertson played at the University of North Texas from 2007-10 and in addition to becoming a four-year letterman who totaled 382 tackles, 3.5 sacks and nine interceptions, he also earned a bachelor's degree and a master's in programming. The full intent also is to earn his Ph.D.

And to run a high school athletic program.

"My parents have always been strong on me, my mom (Beverly) and my dad (Craig Sr.), about academics," said Robertson, who leads the Saints in tackles this season with 72, good for 10th in the NFL according to league statistics. "My mom was always one, 'You need to go talk to your teacher, get that one point. Instead of having an 89, have that 90.' So that was always big, to start.

"But I like being around the business side of sports, but you want to be around sports at the same time. Being an athletic director, you kind of lead and follow at the same time. You give people jobs to be head coaches and things like that, and you lead from behind the scenes. All the coaches get all the glory, all the players get all the glory. I kind of like that. I would rather see other people succeed."

Why high school, rather than college? Robertson said the inspiration was derived from his high school coach, Mike Kanicki.

"Probably one of the people I had in my life – he was my head coach but he was also my athletic director," Robertson said. "I went to a small school (Stafford High in Texas), and they wear both hats. Seeing him at every sporting event and the way he supported each and every team the same way, I just saw how he ran everything. That's something that I can see myself doing."

To help crystallize his decision, he spent some time in the athletic department at North Texas.

"I was real close with our athletic director at North Texas (Rick Villarreal)," Robertson said. "It was cool. I got the internship with the athletic department over the summer of my senior year, and to see how it worked different from high school – when I saw the difference, I'm like, 'Man, my high school athletic director didn't wear as many hats as these guys in the college area.' "

In time, Robertson will wear that hat. At present, the one he wears on game days is gold and has a fleur-de-lis on both sides. And Robertson wears it well, having helped the Saints win four of their last five games to even their record at 4-4.

When he joined the Saints as an unrestricted free agent, the expectation was that he would upgrade the special team units. True, Robertson had started 81 percent of the games he played with the Browns in his final three seasons with Cleveland (34 of 42) and in those years, from 2013-15, had totaled 231 tackles, three sacks, four interceptions, 12 passes defensed, two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. But he also had been a special team standout with 10 tackles in '14 and nine tackles in '15.

The first signs that he was much more began popping up during offseason workouts, then became more consistently evident during training camp when media and fans were able to see him on a daily basis.

He was more than capable of being a run-stopper, and displayed speed and athleticism covering running backs and tight ends in the passing game. Robertson making plays downfield in the secondary was a routine sight during practice at The Greenbrier.

"I kind of did it all in high school, so that's what I was," he said. "I didn't play linebacker until my senior year. I played safety, and outside rushing the passer. That's what I did most of the time. I was covering, but I played offense, too.

"I felt like I had defense in high school, so I did all offense drills, like feet and all that stuff. That's what I focused on the most and that helped on defense because I know what I'm looking at defense-wise, but when you're practicing offense and certain drills, it helped me know what they were working on. In college, I played safety when I first got to college and then I moved inside as I got older."

Injuries gave him the opportunity to start in the season opener for New Orleans, but his play has assured that he stayed in the starting lineup. Through the midpoint of the season, Robertson has a team-leading 72 tackles – 28 more tackles than the nearest teammate – with an interception, a fumble recovery and four passes defended.

And he has shown the football smarts and adaptability to play the 'Will' and 'Mike' linebacker positions.

When Coach Sean Payton said prior to the bye week that, defensively, the Saints would be finding ways to make sure that the best 11 players were on the field, there wasn't much doubt Robertson would be one of them. So when the starting defense morphed into a 4-2-5 personnel group – four defensive linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs – Robertson didn't miss a beat.

"To be honest, I didn't know what my role would be," he said. "I was just happy with the change of scenery, to be honest. But in terms of roles, I've never been a guy who was focused on roles because roles always change. So if you're a guy that's focused on one certain role, when something changes – guys react differently when they feel that something is taken or gained.

"So if you're never worried about it, it's like, 'I'm playing football.' So at the end of the day, that's how I look at it, like, 'Man, I'm just lucky enough to play this game.' That's the best part about football, it's never going to be the same. You've guys who might start two years and then never start again. And then, have you been playing special teams? All of that stuff kind of rolls into the longevity of your career.

"Even though I started a lot of games in Cleveland, I was always a core special teamer, no matter how many plays I had on defense. Special teams is something that kind of keeps you in the league. If you can play good on special teams, you'll have a spot on a lot of rosters. I came in undrafted, that was your bread and butter, special teams. So it was like, regardless of how many snaps you play, you can never get away from your bread and butter."

Robertson said that, more than starts, winning it what he's after. In his four seasons with Cleveland, the Browns were 19-45.

"I just want to win," he said. "That's what it all boils down to. Regardless of whether I play every snap, one snap or no snaps, I want to do whatever I can to put our defense and our team in the best position to win a game.

"That's what this league boils down to. You can play as good as you want to, but it's a wins and losses league. The more games you win, that's what you're judged by."

That judgment will apply to his future job, as well. He's not ready to accept a position just yet, but Robertson seems to know exactly where he's going.

"It's just good to know what you want to do, so you'll have something to work toward," he said. "So whenever I'm done playing, whenever that may be, that will be what I'll be working toward next. I've always set goals for myself to try to attain, so I can keep progressing, so I'm never stagnant."

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