We turn our attention to a major positional preview of concern for the Saints as they head into training camp: linebacker. This is an area of importance for the Saints since they will be transitioning to the 3-4 defensive scheme and they have plenty of talent at the position.
Leading the linebacking corps will be veteran Jonathan Vilma. He hasn’t been healthy the past two years, but he finally feels ready to get back to his 2010 form. He recorded 105 tackles, four sacks, three forced fumbles, and an interception that year. Vilma took a pay cut this off-season because of his belief in making the defense better outweighs the money he will be giving up. That’s the kind of leader I want on my team.
If anyone could challenge that leadership it would be Curtis Lofton. On the statistically worst defense in NFL history, Lofton recorded his third best season in his six-year career with 123 tackles, two forced fumbles, and a sack. These two men seem to be the ideal choice for the inside linebacker positions in defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s defense based off their experience and demonstrated ability.
Battling for the remaining backup inside linebacker positions are guys that have true versatility in coverage and pass-rushing that translate to the outside linebacker position as well. Undrafted Chase Thomas (the highest graded player not drafted in the 2013 Draft) out of Stanford would be perfect to groom and develop as an inside linebacker to eventually take Vilma’s spot should he go down during the season with an injury. At 6-foot-3 and 244 pounds he is a solid presence in the running game and has the length and ability for pass coverage.
Another undrafted diamond-in-the-rough is UNC’s Kevin Riddick who was billed as the fifth-best inside linebacker in the 2013 Draft. Standing at 6-foot-2 and 243 pounds he has the versatility to play strong side on the inside or outside, but I think he is a better fit inside. His play on the field favors run coverage more than pass coverage and the Saints have enough guys that specialize in pass rushing now.
In the yet-to-make-an-impact veteran category sit Chris Chamberlain and David Hawthorne whom both started their careers in 2008. Both can play outside or inside linebacker positions. Chamberlain tore his ACL during preseason in 2012 and Hawthorne missed several games last year because of an injured hamstring. Look for both to try to solidify backup roles as they can be placed at various positions along the linebacking front.