Inside the Saints’ sordid history of drafting linebackers
The Saints have fielded some pretty good linebackers in the Sean Payton-Mickey Loomis era, among them: Demario Davis, Jonathan Vilma, Curtis Lofton, Scott Fujita, Scott Shanle and Mark Simoneau.
These ‘backers varied in size and play style, but they all have one thing in common: not a single one was drafted by the Saints. Payton, Loomis and Jeff Ireland are aggressive in targeting athletic playmakers to populate the second level of their defense, but all the good LB’s have been acquired through trades or free agency.
Along with cornerback and defensive line, finding a linebacker (or two) to play alongside Demario Davis is a pressing need this offseason. But alas, the Saints seem to be cursed when it comes to drafting this position. Their rookie linebacker misfortune actually pre-dates Payton’s tenure and extends the length of Loomis’ stint as general manager, but we’ll save discussions of Sedrick Hodge, James Allen and Cie Grant for another day. Or, preferably, never.
Here are the LB’s the Saints have drafted since 2006:
2007 – Marvin Mitchell (7th round, 220 overall). Mitchell spent 7 seasons in the league. He had some spot starts in New Orleans and in his best year (2010), he posted 43 tackles and forced two fumbles.
2009 – Stanley Arnoux (4th round, 118 overall). It was the Super Bowl season, so who cares if Arnoux didn’t set foot on the field until 2010, also his final season in the league? Points for having a cool Cajun-sounding name, though.
2011 – Martez Wilson (3rd round, 72 overall) and Nate Bussey (7th round, 243 overall). Wilson was as much of a bust as he was an athletic freak. I do, however, have a very vivid memory of him blasting Cam Newton for his only sack as a rookie.
2014 – Khairi Fortt (4th round, 126 overall) and Ronald Powell (5th round, 169 overall). The 2014 draft is among the Saints’ worst hauls, ever. The only player of note was WR Brandin Cooks, who has been traded 47 times in his seven-year career. Stanley Jean-Baptiste, the big cornerback taken in the second round, had an awesome name that made him seem like he could’ve been a pirate contemporary of Jean Lafitte. Unfortunately, Jean-Baptiste was also about as good at football as a long-dead pirate. Fortt allegedly fell asleep and/or was late to meetings, and Ronald Powell had injury issues.
2015 – Stephone Anthony (1st round, 31st overall), Hau’oli Kikaha (2nd round, 44th overall) and Davis Tull (5th round, 148 overall). Anthony never put it all together. He started all 16 games and recorded 116 tackles (and a TD!) as a rookie, but there were whispers that he freelanced on the field and was always out of position. Kikaha showed some promise (4 sacks as a rookie) and Tull was more of a defensive end, but neither one could stay healthy enough to stick around.
2017 – Alex Anzalone (3rd round, 76 overall). Anzalone is by far the best player on this list. Truthfully, he was a fine role player in his four years with the Saints. I will never forget watching him demolish Falcons WR Julio Jones during their 2018 week 12 matchup, sending the all-world receiver helicoptering through the air and forcing a fumble. But alas, coverage was never Anzalone’s strong suit and he was exposed during the 2021 Divisional Round loss to the Buccaneers. He recently signed a veteran minimum deal with the Detroit Lions.
2019 – Kaden Eliss (7th round, 244 overall). The son of former Pro Bowl DT Luther Eliss, the younger Eliss is still on the team. It seems the Saints like him, but he missed most of 2019 with a knee injury.
2020 – Zack Baun (3rd round, 74 overall). The jury is still out on Baun, who barely played in 2020.
In all, the Saints have drafted 12 LB’s since 2006 and not a single one has made the Pro Bowl, All-Pro team, or even started more than 20 games in their careers in New Orleans. For the last home-grown Pro Bowl linebacker, you’d have to go all the way back to the Jim Haslett era, when Mark Fields (who was actually drafted by Jim Mora and Bill Kuharich in 1995) made the all-star game in 2000.
So what’s the takeaway here? Have the Saints just had bad luck, or is there some deficiency in their college scouting department? Luckily, of the Saints’ remaining needs this offseason, linebacker is probably the position that will be easiest to fill. Dennis Allen’s defense plays a lot of nickel package with five defensive backs and only two linebackers, meaning they’re really only looking for one starter.
When it became clear Anzalone wasn’t rangy enough to play beside Davis fulltime and Kiko Alonso wouldn’t be healthy in time to contribute in 2020, the Saints traded for former LSU Tiger Kwon Alexander. He seemed like the answer next to Davis until he ruptured his Achilles tendon in week 16. He was released in the Great Cap Squeeze of 2021, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see Alexander return for less money later in the offseason, if his rehab goes well.
It’s entirely possible that the Saints roll with Davis and whoever has the best training camp among the young LBs already on the roster – Baun, Eliss, or Chase Hansen, a former undrafted free agent who the team is allegedly high on.
If an athletic linebacker who excels in coverage is available at no. 28 when the Saints are on the clock, perhaps they’ll bite. It would be fallacious to assume that every linebacker chosen by the team henceforth will stink, but given the their recent history, literally every other avenue sounds better right now.