The New Orleans Saints made a splash in the 2016 NFL offseason with multiple free agent signings. Tight end Coby Fleener, defensive tackle Nick Fairley and middle linebacker James Laurinaitis were the recognizable names, however one player that may be overlooked is primed for a huge year. New Orleans Saints 2016 linebacker Craig Robertson is poised for success.
Former Cleveland Browns linebacker Craig Robertson was signed in the offseason to little fanfare. The 28-year old became a consistent role player for the Browns defense since being signed as an undrafted free agent in December of 2011 out of the University of North Texas.
In 2012, Robertson not only made the team but contributed in every game and started three of the 16 games. He finished the season with two interceptions, two fumble recoveries and a sack. The surprising level of play allowed Robertson to stick with the Browns defense and receive more playing time in the years to follow.
The 2013 season would have Robertson starting 14 games as an inside linebacker and he would accumulate three sacks, a fumble recovery and an interception. His best game came in a 17-23 loss to Kansas City in week 8. Robertson had 11 tackles and a sack against a talented Chiefs offense.
By 2014, Craig Robertson would see his snap count drop due to a knee injury but his production remained. While he did not record a sack, he did have a pair of interceptions and a fumble recovered for a touchdown in a week 13 game against the Indianapolis Colts.
Robertson would battle an injured ankle in 2015 and he would finish the season with his lowest amount of snaps in his career but in the final game of the season against the Pittsburg Steelers, Robertson would make a huge impact. Craig Robertson would recover a fumble and intercept Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger while also accumulating 3 tackles.
While the stats do not jump off the screen as all pro quality, Robertson was impactful in ways that did not show up in the box score. He is a quality pass rusher and positively impacts the defense in coverage.
What follows is a break down of multiple impact plays for Craig Robertson in that week 17 game against the Pittsburg Steelers:
13:02 First Quarter:
On second down, Robertson lined up as a weak side linebacker. As the ball is snapped he shadows running back Deangelo Williams toward the sideline. Ben Roethlisberger passes to wide receiver Antonio Brown who was covered by linebacker Karlos Dansby. Dansby strips Brown of the ball and Robertson, who did not give up on the play, tracks the ball and plucks it from the air to take it nine yards upfield and give the Browns excellent field position. These impactful turnovers are the kinds of plays Saints linebackers have struggled to make since Jonathan Vilma and Scott Fujita prowled the middle of the field.
9:03 Second Quarter:
Pittsburgh lined up at the nine yard line for a first down play. Craig Robertson played the middle linebacker position and recognized a run play before the snap. As Roethlisberger handed the ball to running back Fitzgerald Toussaint for a counter run play, Robertson approached the line with his focus on the backfield. Once he reached the line of scrimmage Robertson avoided engagement from an offensive lineman and allowed the play to flow back to his location. As soon as Toussaint reached the line he was met by Robertson and tackled for a minimal gain.
13:22 Third Quarter:
On second down, Robertson lined up as a strong side linebacker playing in zone coverage. As soon as the ball is snapped Robertson focused his eyes in the backfield following Roethlisberger as he scans the field. Antonio Brown, the intended receiver, runs a slant route over the middle of the field. The cornerback, K’Waun Williams, plays far enough off of Brown that he appears to be open. Robertson uses his instincts to remain in the middle of the field and Roethlisberger doesn’t see the linebacker playing underneath coverage as he is focused on the intended receiver. Robertson takes the interception 38 yards to give the Browns excellent field position in the red zone.
The Browns offense was never able to capitalize on the plays that Robertson made in that game, but with Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints offense those big plays that Robertson brings will certainly impact the final score.
The Saints defense was at it’s worst in pass coverage and especially when attempting to guard tight ends and running backs. The team allowed 1,290 yards and 11 touchdowns to tight ends and over 900 yards receiving with 7 touchdowns to running backs in 2015. Craig Robertson’s ability to cover the tight end and running back makes the 2016 version of the Saints defense immediately better.
After four seasons of steady linebacking play with the Cleveland Browns, Craig Robertson is poised for success in 2016. Veteran linebacker Dannell Ellerbe’s injury history should make Robertson’s road to a starting job that much smoother, but he could well deserve on his own merits.