After finishing the 2017 season on injured reserved due to a sports hernia, New Orleans Saints linebacker A.J. Klein spent the off season at the Ochsner Sports Performance Center rehabbing and preparing for his second season with the Saints. Klein played all 16 games for New Orleans in 2018 and continued to be a strong force for the team’s second line of defense. In his sixth year in the NFL, Klein had his best season with a career-high 70 tackles, one interception for six yards, three pass deflections, a career-high two fumble recoveries for 17 yards and two sacks. Though the impact isn’t always shown in statistics, Klein also played a major role on special teams for the Saints, seeing 172 snaps.
BEST GAME: On the road against the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday, Nov. 29 when the Saints traveled to AT&T Stadium. Despite the 13-10 loss, Klein had a strong performance, sacking Dak Prescott once and coming up with five tackles.
BEST QUOTE: “But this year is definitely special, it has that feel, and I think the best part is that we’re working on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis, on not getting too far ahead of ourselves and just taking every week as it comes,” Klein said following the Week 15 game against the Carolina Panthers. “We have high goals, but (Coach) Sean (Payton) and all the coaches have done a great job of keeping us focused on the task at hand, week to week.”
A.J. Klein spent the last three years at Iowa State making a name for himself as a consistent middle linebacker. Whichever team ends up drafting him in the 2013 NFL draft certainly won't be disappointed with what it gets. While Klein isn't the most athletic linebacker prospect available this year, he has great instincts and the ability to play all three downs for an NFL team. Here are five things you need to know about Klein.
AJ Klein’s ability to lead and make big plays is unquestioned. He even tested out well at the combine and pro day, but his film tells the story of a player who might not have the athleticism to start in the NFL. Wisconsin overlooked this native son, and instead Klein went on to be a star for Iowa State. Will a pro team benefit from the tendency to underrate this playmaker?
Klein is an instinctive, versatile, high-energy linebacker who is often in the right place at the right time. He recognizes where the play is going very quickly and gets after the ball with conviction once he spots it. Klein is comfortable dropping and moving in space and reacts well to passes in his zone. He plays high effort and leads by example. Klein also has terrific hands for the interception and knack for the pick-six.
Klein has a lot of trouble with ball-carriers in space. He can be eluded by moves with average quickness and this happens too often and too easily on his film. He lacks sideline-to-sideline range and probably can’t hang in man coverage at the next level. Klein is not a stout linebacker, and he lacks ability to consistently take on and defeat blocks.
At 6’1″ 250 with 32-7/8″ arms and big 10-1/4″ hands, Klein is a formidable presence in the middle and well-proportioned for NFL play. His 4.66 40 at the combine is faster than his speed on tape, as are his 4.35 short shuttle and 7.09 three-cone times from his pro day. Klein looks like an average NFL athlete at linebacker at best.
A team captain and hustle player on the field, Klein also made plays all over the field and returned four interceptions for touchdowns during his career. He has a high football IQ, and Klein is clearly a quick-thinker when the bullets are flying.
Klein played all three linebacker positions in Iowa State’s 4-3 defense and spent a lot of time dropping into coverage. He also was an outstanding special teams contributor on coverage units early in his career.
With good deep drops into coverage and instinctive movement that usually puts him in the right place, Klein is an asset in a zone pass defense. Klein is aware of players passing through his zone and reacts very quickly to their presence. He drives on the receiver in front of him very well, but he can be eluded with an adequate move.
Klein has excellent hands for the interception and he is able to spot a good lane and take off without hesitation once he secures the pick. Klein is not as good at mirroring offensive players in man coverage, where his speed and change of direction limitations are exposed.
Once again, Klein has the smarts and urgency to put pressure on the quarterback, but he is too easily eluded when he is closing in for the sack. His best efforts as a pass-rusher come when he is able to flush the quarterback from the pocket or force an early throw.
Klein’s reads against the run are very good and they can put him a step ahead of the action. He does have sometimes trouble getting through trash or off a block, but Klein is outstanding at flowing to the play and doesn’t get off course very often. While he puts himself in position to make the tackle in the open field, Klein can be shaken by a running back with average quickness and creativity.
Few linebacker in this class are as good at diagnosing and reacting to a play as Klein. Against both the pass and the run, he has clarity reading his keys and is usually in the area of the play when it goes anywhere near him. He is also good at peels off of his designated responsibility to make a play elsewhere once the offense commits.
When Klein corrals his quarry, he is a good form tackler who wraps up and stops the forward momentum of his opponent by driving through them, but he doesn’t hit with a jolt or otherwise knock around the ball-carrier. He can struggle to get his hands on a relatively quick and elusive back in space and this will be a bigger problem at the next level.
Klein can play on passing downs as long as he isn’t asked to cover one-on-one, and he can also defend the run well as long as he is given some room to roam. He might fit best at SLB in a 4-3 or ILB in a 3-4. He’ll also be a core special teams player from day one.
The linebacking corps was absolutely the weakest link of the New Orleans Saints defense in 2017. In 2018, the group as a whole became one of the better-performing aspects of the defense. Granted, this was due in no small part to the addition of Demario Davis from the New York Jets and return of a healthy Alex Anzalone.
Based on the grades you see above, Klein struggled more in defending the run than he did against the pass. Even on run plays, though, Klein was able to make plays when the team needed him.
Klein is a smart football player, and he uses his football IQ to make up for a lack of elite speed or play-making ability. In pass coverage, he can has just enough speed to stick with most running back. Klein makes it a point to leave himself in good position to make plays on either the ball or the ball-carrier, as evidenced by this “right place at the right time” interception against the Atlanta Falcons.
With Klein’s 2019 $5 million cap hit in 2019, even with his increased productivity in 2018, it’s hard to say Klein provides value at his cost. Klein is definitely a candidate to be a cap casualty in 2019, but it’s more likely he would simply be restructured to reduce his cap hit rather than be outright cut altogether.
Still, the improvement of AJ Klein in his second year as a member of the Saints was definitely noticeable. Klein, playing in all 16 games (starting 15), matched or set career highs in interceptions (1), tackles (42), tackles for loss (7), QB hits (4), and fumble recoveries (2). Without Klein, the Saints linebackers would not have been nearly a productive unit in 2018.
Bleacher Report came out with a piece on Wednesday, Nov. 14, listing each NFL teams’ most improved player. Of course, the conditions for this list would be that they had played for the same team in 2017. For the Saints, the piece names defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins as most improved. While Rankins is certainly playing better in 2018 than he did last year, the biggest improvement is what we’re seeing out of linebacker A.J. Klein.
This is certainly not to take anything away from Sheldon Rankins. His game does look considerably better this year. Nine games into the 2018 Season, the third year player has 23 tackles and five sacks and is an anchor in the league’s best run defense.
But, subjective as it is, looking into Pro Football Focus’ analysis of Rankins’ game is a little more illuminating. He’s definitely improved as a pass rusher and that’s a big reason the Saints took him in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft. He was meant to be a Warren Sapp type player. And he’s developing in that style well.
His overall statistics against the run and pass though aren’t dramatically different from where they were last year. He’s just taking better advantage of his opportunities. And part of our breakdown here is that he was already doing pretty well as a defensive lineman.
A.J. Klein, on the other hand, was miserable last year. He was one of the worst rated linebackers in the league by Pro Football Focus and we talked about that a lot on Who Dat Dish. Maybe too much. Or, maybe A.J. Klein said “Screw you guys, watch this!” and came out this year a completely revitalized version of himself.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that the Saints went out and got Demario Davis to help out with the linebacker corps. Having Davis in the line-up along with a healthy Alex Anzalone means that Klein has less of the field to cover this year, less responsibility. He’s not always the guy being given the responsibility to calling the defensive alignments. Those duties are being shared with Davis and Anzalone as well.