With little cap room this year, and allot of maneuvering, the New Orleans saints front office managed to sign some big name free agents that should drastically improve what has been a historically weak defense defending the run.
Last season the Saints inked two big body defensive tackles in an effort to beef up the defensive line. First was Shaun Rogers, the former Pro Bowler, followed by nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin.
But neither made the impact the Saints had hoped — combining for 39 tackles and zero sacks — while increasing the run defense just marginally, dropping them from a 16th ranking in 2010 to 12th in 2011.
Both are free agents, and both will likely play elsewhere in 2012.
Enter Brodrick Bunkley, a former first round pick of the Philadelphia Eagles in 2006, and the ex-Denver Bronco that garnered a reputation last season in the Mile High City as one of the leagues fiercest run defenders.
Bunkley combined for 43 tackles for the Broncos.
His presence on the Saints defensive line immediately makes everyone around him better, including Sedrick Ellis, who has had a few up and down season with the Saints since being drafted in the first round in 2007.
Bunkley is not know as an elite pass rusher, but he will absolutely dominate the line of scrimmage.
New Orleans also re-vamped their linebacker core, bringing in Curtis Lofton, David Hawthorne, and Chris Chamberlain.
Lofton, formerly of the Atlanta Falcons, also plays the run exceptionally well starting 63 games for the Falcons at middle linebacker, posting 492 carreer tackles and four sacks.
It’s still unclear just what the Saints plan to do with Lofton, but the common opinion is that he will replace linebacker Jonathan Vilma in the middle of the Saints defense.
Vilma has an uncertain future with the Saints considering their signing of Lofton and his potential suspension for his alleged involvement in Gregg Williams “bounty” system.
Love or hate it, he is likely an upgrade over Vilma.
Hawthorne broke into the Seahawks staring lineup after injuries to Lofa Tatupu, and never looked back.
He can play both outside linebacker and middle linebacker, but most recently started 14 games for the Seahawks at middle linebacker where he made 115 tackles, two sacks, and six pass deflections.
Hawthorne skill set matches up more as an outside linebacker as he clearly excels in pass coverage, but is still a fierce run defender, even getting the nickname “thumper’ for his hitting ability.
The Saints will probably put Hawthorne on the outside alongside Lofton, forming a potent duo that Spagnuolo should let run wild next season.
Chamberlain is less flashy than either Hawthorne or Lofton, but he thrived with the Rams last season under the tutelage of Spagnuolo posting 81 tackles, two sacks, and a forced fumble at outside linebacker.
In fact Lofton, Hawthorne, and Chamberlain could be the starting trio of linebacker for the Saints next season.
All the signings indicate how serious the Saints were about improving the defense as a whole while addressing run defense at the same time.
The defensive unit should be much more athletic and explosive than in seasons past. The proof is in the pudding, but the Saints should be a much bettter unit in 2012.