May 29, 2014; Metairie, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints linebacker Victor Butler (90) and linebacker Ronald Powell (56) during offseason team activities at the New Orleans Saints Training Facility. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans Saints Position Battle: Linebacker

Today we continue our look at New Orleans Saints position battles by examining the crowded linebacker position.

Most of the starting spots in this group are already locked up, making the depth chart relatively easy to predict. That said, there are some battles for backup roster spots with some talented young players looking to emerge in training camp.

Let’s start by looking at the sure things.

The two middle linebacker gigs belong to Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne. Neither player is an athletic marvel or anything like that, but both are solid, especially against the run.

Lofton is the quarterback of the Saints D. He calls the plays, has the right to audible, and is always on the field (he led the team last season, seeing action in 95.8% of defensive snaps). While he isn’t great in pass coverage, he is a sure tackler, having notched at least 117 tackles in each of the last five seasons. He is as consistent as it gets, and that’s exactly what you want out of your starting inside linebacker.

Consistency is also a big part of Hawthorne’s game. He is perhaps the best run-defender New Orleans has at the position, and totaled 91 tackles last season, his first fully healthy season in the black and gold. Rob Ryan often subs Hawthorne out during passing downs, and that is probably a good thing since the TCU product isn’t great against the pass. Still, when the Saints are in their base 3-4 set, you can bet Hawthorne is out there.

Junior Galette will man one of the starting outside linebacker spots, and Saints fans are all drooling over the possibility of him improving on his breakout 2013 season. Galette burst onto the scene last year, notching 12 sacks and finishing the year as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked 3-4 outside backer. The Times-Picayune reported that the Saints may try to limit Galette’s snaps a bit this season, but fear not Who Dat Nation, this would only be done to keep him fresher in late-game situations. There’s no reason to believe Galette won’t be wreaking havoc on quarterbacks again in 2014.

On the opposite side of Galette, New Orleans will likely rotate between Parys Haralson and Victor Butler. Personally, I like this 1-2 punch a lot.

In Haralson, Rob Ryan has a smart run defender who consistently maintains the edge, and rarely allows running backs to turn the corner. He’ll never blow you away with highlight reel plays, but he rarely makes back-breaking mistakes either. Like Hawthorne, Haralson will often be on the field in base packages, subbing out on passing downs.

Which brings us to Butler. Saints fans remember him as the team’s marquee signing last offseason… and also remember how short-lived that was. Butler tore his ACL in OTAs, and never saw any time on the field during his first season in New Orleans. After a year of rehab, though, he’s ready to go.

Butler is a pass-rush specialist, who thrived in limited playing time under Ryan in Dallas. It’s tough to predict what kind of numbers he’ll put up, since we haven’t seen him play in a year, but it’s clear that the coaching staff likes him and that he’s jacked up to play. He recently told ESPN.com, “my role is to make this defense, which was to me the No. 1 defense in the league, even better.” You gotta like the sounds of that.

After those guys, the position gets really interesting with a mix of young players and veterans battling for backup and special teams roles.

Ramon Humber and Kevin Reddick have an inside track on making the final roster after both appeared in all 16 games in 2013. Both guys played primarily inside last season, and add some depth to the position. 2014 4th round pick Khairi Fortt will also compete for some time in the middle.

Cheta Ozougwu, Keyunta Dawson, Ronald Powell, Chidera Uzo-Diribe and Kasim Edebali will all compete for the backup spots outside. Ozougwu and Dawson appeared in limited action last season, meaning both could have an upper-hand to land a roster spot. That said they are also pretty much journeymen at this point in their careers and lack the upside of the rookies behind them.

I’m personally pulling for Powell, one of the Saints’ 5th round picks in April’s draft. Heading into college, Powell was the top recruit in all of football, however character issues and multiple ACL tears limited his impact for the Florida Gators. That said, if he can stay healthy, there’s still some reason to believe that he can emerge as an impact defender. He’s one of the guys I’m most looking forward to seeing in camp.

The Saints linebacking core lacks name recognition, but makes up for it with depth. They have multiple guys at each position that can produce and also have some intriguing young players. For New Orleans to repeat as a top-10 defense in 2014, this group is going to be key. So pay attention to these guys throughout camp, as they could dictate how far the 2014 New Orleans Saints go.

 

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Tags: 2014 New Orleans Saints 2014 Saints Training Camp

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