The New Orleans Saints have lost outside linebacker and prized free agent Victor Butler to a torn ACL this past week in OTAs. Butler’s loss is a devastating blow to a defense that was awful this past season. New defensive coordinator Rob Ryan handpicked Butler during free agency to come in and play for the Saints.
Butler was expected to bring a pass rushing presence off the edge and already knew Ryan’s system. Butler didn’t get much playing time in Dallas as he was sitting behind Demarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer, two pro bowl caliber linebackers. The silver lining to the injury is that it happened early, giving the Saints enough time to make the necessary adjustments to replace Butler.
With Butler out of the mix, the two most likely candidates to replace him are Junior Galette and Will Smith. Martez Wilson will most likely have the other linebacker spot locked up. Galette is a young pass rushing specialist who has shown flashes of brilliance. Meanwhile, Smith played defensive end in the 4-3 scheme and is making the conversion to outside linebacker in the 3-4. Both have the ability to rush the passer, but Galette is clearly the more athletic of the two. In addition to Smith and Galette, two under the radar guys to watch out for now that they have an opportunity are Rufus Johnson and Chase Thomas.
Rufus Johnson, the seventh round pick out of Tarleton State, is raw, lengthy, and a very good athlete. Johnson was very productive in college, albeit at a small school for a very short time. While at Tarleton State, he posted 15.5 sacks in 20 games, and was named the 2012 Lone Star Defensive Lineman of the Year. Thomas, the undrafted free agent out of Stanford, is not nearly as athletic as Johnson; however he has a very high IQ and experience in the 3-4. At Stanford, he was very productive and decorated, racking up almost 28 sacks in 4 seasons and being named to the 2012 All Pac-12 First Team. Both have the ability, and with Butler down, they will both have a chance to make the roster and maybe even make an impact.
Though the loss of Butler is devastating, it is a position with a lot of depth and the Saints should be able to build a formidable rotation of pass rushers. Though there isn’t much out there free agency wise, expect the Saints to possibly bring in a veteran to compete with others for playing time.