Saints Linebackers Show Promise As A Solid Unit
By Greg Barber
In 2012, the New Orleans Saints linebackers contributed to a defense that allowed a record-breaking 7,042 yards in one season. Needless to say, every phase of the defense did not perform well, but the linebackers were highly overestimated talent-wise. LBs Scott Shanle and Jonathan Casillas are gone and more will follow by the end of training camp.
In 2013, it looks like coach Sean Payton and the rest of the Saints organization has upgraded the linebacker unit significantly with the new free agents, draft picks and undrafted players the team has acquired during the offseason. Here is a rundown of some of the players that will start, play a large role, end up on the practice squad or will be cut by the end of training camp. Also keep in mind that many of these players will play different positions within the unit, so there will be a lot of interchanging depending on the situation and play being called.
Victor Butler, Injury
Butler came to New Orleans for two reasons: He could not crack the starting lineup in Dallas and because of his past relationship with defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and knowledge of the defense. Butler should become a valuable asset to the Saints, but this is only an assumption since there is no guarantee that he will perform as expected. Therefore, his loss on defense is not as significant as it would seem. As a matter of fact, it could be a blessing in disguise.
Lofton may have been the second-best player on defense in 2012 behind DE Cam Jordan but in LB Jonathan Vilma's absence, he did a good job being a leader on defense. Lofton will start at one of the inside linebacker spots this season.
Vilma had a lot going on between being occupied in the bounty scandal and dealing with an injured knee for half the season in 2012. In fact, last season may have been the worst season that he has played in his career because of all the controversy going on at the time. Early on in the offseason it was thought that he may not make the team but since a strong showing during OTAs, Vilma could start alongside Lofton at ILB.
Smith can put pressure on the opposing quarterback but has a hard time bringing the quarterback down behind the line of scrimmage. So far, it seems like Smith will be taking his place at the Jack linebacker position based off his performance at OTAs. There is a strong possibility that Smith could end up coming off the bench with the possible emergence of Junior Galette, Martez Wilson or Chase Thomas during training camp.
Wilson has shown good pass rushing abilities and can ultimately develop into a top-notch linebacker in the future. He has the potential to be one of the best linebackers in the NFL if groomed properly by Rob Ryan; the tools are certainly there.
Play A Large Role
Hawthorne needs to get healthy fast and he could end up showing during training camp and the preseason that he may be better suited for the Sam position or maybe starting at inside linebacker.
Galette is primarily a speed rusher right now but could become a very good all-around linebacker with some new pass rushing moves and improvement on his pass coverage skills.
Rufus Johnson, Kevin Reddick, Chase Thomas
If any of the aforementioned linebackers should happen to underperform or get injured, here are three strong possibilities for the team to use as replacements. How Reddick and Thomas went undrafted is impossible to figure out and the Saints are certainly lucky to have them both along with Johnson, who has been doing well.
Ray Shipman, Eric Martin
Both of these players have seen limited time playing the linebacker position but they both have strong potential to become better with time. Each would be better served to go on the practice squad for a year or so and see what happens next season as they learn more about the position and the playbook.
Chris Chamberlain, Will Herring, Ramon Humber
Chamberlain was hurt last season and never really got a chance to show what he can do. He will be given a chance to earn a spot but the big questions is whether or not he is really a 3-4 linebacker. Chamberlain will be replaced by one of the new linebackers in training camp as there is just too much upside with the likes of Thomas and Reddick to keep Chamberlain on the roster.
Herring is mainly a special teams player. Any rookie who wants a roster spot bad enough will have the potential to replace him.
Humber has never stood out or shown any potential to be a great linebacker in the future. There are five rookies now that can replace him and bring more to the table.
Watching some video of all the rookie players in action creates a lot of excitement of what could be in store for the Saints future. It is easy to envision the starting lineup being Wilson, Thomas, Reddick and Galette in a few years. The biggest worry here will be whether or not Rob Ryan will be able to have the time to develop these players into contributors for the team.