FILLING THE GAP
FILLING THE GAP
The Saints hope Courtney Watson and Alfred Fincher can fill a void that's existed at middle linebacker since Sam Mills left
Thursday, August 18, 2005
By Mike Triplett
Sam Mills started 125 games at inside linebacker for the Saints from 1986 to 1994, as solid an anchor as any NFL defense has ever had.
But since then, 12 players have taken turns as the middle linebacker in the past 10 seasons, hampering continuity and stability at a position that demands those traits.
"Best-case scenario, you want a guy to be in the middle that can play for a long time and really stabilize the defense," said fifth-year linebackers coach Winston Moss, who played outside linebacker in the NFL for 11 years. "Mike linebacker, you've got to be a tackling machine. Your production is a key to a good defense. We're looking for our middle linebacker to be not only the leading tackler, but the guy that actually sets the standard for this defense."
The Saints are hoping they have that guy in second-year starter Courtney Watson, whom they drafted in the second round last year out of Notre Dame.
Watson started nine games last season, beginning the year as the starter, then battling inconsistency and a knee injury before returning as the starter in Week 14.
He made a modest 70 tackles and two sacks, but he admits that he was doing a lot more thinking than reacting -- a common rookie handicap. This year, both Watson and the coaching staff expect him to make that leap that most NFL players make in their second season.
"My understanding of the defense now is so much greater than it was last year, it's not even funny," Watson said. "So now, most of the stuff that was something I had to think about last year is more just like second nature.
"Being able to come in and just play fast and not have to think so much, just react to what they're doing and just go out and play and let loose, is obviously what any player would want."
Speed and quickness are the traits that stand out with Watson, who played weakside linebacker until his senior year at Notre Dame. He flashes good instincts and reacts well to the ball in pass defense.
Saints coach Jim Haslett said he would like to see Watson, a 6-foot-1, 246-pounder, also prove he can be a physical presence and sure tackler, which are staples of most successful middle linebackers.
Moss said that once Watson becomes more comfortable making plays on the field, he thinks he also will develop into more of a vocal leader on defense.
"I don't think he's a vocal, rah-rah Ray Lewis type," Moss said. "I think he's a guy that's very intelligent. He's very smart. He can get guys lined up. And he takes his shot whenever he has his chance.
"He's going to be very productive. And once the guys around him see that, I think they're really going to respect him and rally around him."
Watson, who turns 25 in September, said he takes pride in playing a central role on the defense and doesn't want the team to ever have to consider moving him back to weakside linebacker -- although his ability to play both positions is a plus.
Defensive coordinator Rick Venturi said the best thing about Watson is that he has the skills to line up in every defensive situation.
"He can play three downs," Venturi said. "He can play in a sophisticated nickel package, and yet be your base backer. A lot of middle linebackers are not three-down guys. It's a good deal for me because you have your same signal-caller in all the time. It's subtle, but it's important.
"So I'm just hoping that everything continues on the upswing, because he brings a lot to the table. . . . I think he'll have staying power."
The Saints drafted another middle linebacker in the third round this year, Alfred Fincher out of Connecticut. A sure tackler in college, Fincher is expected to make an immediate impact on special teams. But his head has been swimming a bit in training camp, and he's not really pushing Watson for the starting job.
Still, it's a young mix that could finally provide depth and stability.
Earlier this offseason, the Saints released veteran middle linebacker Orlando Ruff, signed in free agency in 2003. Ruff was not as athletic in the later stages of his career as the coaches wanted.
In 2000, the team signed free-agent Charlie Clemons, who was a standout pass rusher but not an ideal fit as a middle linebacker. He played two years in New Orleans after rupturing an Achilles tendon and missing the 2000 season.
Darrin Smith (2000-04) and Kevin Mitchell (1998-99) were less-heralded free-agent acquisitions. Chris Bordano (1998-99) was a sixth-round draft pick. Winfred Tubbs (1994-97) was a third-round choice.
"You've had a number of guys come in to try to fill that position," Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said, "simply because either there haven't been the right guys available at the time we drafted, or there haven't been the right guys available during free agency. Or we've made a play for some guys and they've chose to go elsewhere. So we haven't been able to hit on that position."
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