With the improvement of the New Orleans Saints’ defense, most of the attention has gone to the younger talent in the secondary and defensive line. However, one position that gets somewhat lost in the shuffle is the play of the inside linebacker position, led by veterans Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne.
Lofton, one of the Saints’ prized free agent last year, made a seamless transition into 3-4 defense recording his 5th straight 100 plus tackle season. Leading the team in tackles, Lofton provided leadership and consistency as he lined up at the center of the defense.
There was some concern on who Lofton’s running mate would be early in the season. Jonathan Vilma was injured; and even if he was healthy, there was still questions of whether he could play in the 3-4. Other than that, there weren’t many other options. However, David Hawthorne, who was also signed last season stepped in nicely. People tend to forget that Hawthorne was brought in last year to start and be a key contributor for the Saints, but injuries last season slowed him down significantly.
Hawthorne, who started all but one game, was second on the team in tackles. He, along with Lofton, helped a defense that was riddled with injuries across the board. The losses forced Rob Ryan to be extremely multiple with his defense, installing a different one each week. This would normally be a substantial amount to digest, but Lofton and Hawthorne’s veteran leadership made the transition look effortless.
In addition to Lofton and Hawthorne, the Saints got some contributions from Ramon Humber and undrafted rookie free agent Kevin Reddick. Humber started three games, and played solid football in packages where Rob Ryan wanted to go heavy with his linebackers using sometime 5 at once, and Reddick was a consistent contributor on special teams.
Despite solid play from the current cast, this is one of the areas of great need going into the offseason. Though Lofton and Hawthorne were solid throughout the season, both lack the elite athleticism that is required for this unit to be truly dynamic. Both were great when plays were downhill. However, when it came to covering the flats and guarding against stretch and outside runs, they lacked the speed to stop these plays consistently.
Unfortunately, most of what they are looking for in free agency will be too expensive or not enough of an upgrade to justify shelling out extra cash that can be used elsewhere. Having said this, the draft isn’t laden with a ton of elite talent at linebacker (the little that is there won’t be available to the Saints), but it does have a good amount of solid depth that can be had in the late first and and later rounds.
If the Saints are going to use their first round pick on a linebacker, the most ideal fit would be Ryan Shazier (Ohio State). Though he is listed as an outside linebacker, he will have the ability to play inside. He has athleticism that allows his to thrive in coverage, and he has the closing speed to cover those flat routes. He would be an excellent complement to Lofton on passing downs.
Other than Shazier, there is plenty of second round talent that would fit the bill. Most notable of which are Telvin Smith(FSU), who ran the fastest 40 time at the Combine, Yawin Smallwood, and Kyle Van Noy. However, one guy that intrigues me is Shayne Skov (Stanford).
He isn’t as athletic as the others mentioned, but he was the leader of a very stout Stanford defense. He has a high football IQ that might be reminiscent of a guy like Sean Lee, one of Rob Ryan’s favorite players. He might be a guy to watch out for in 3rd or 4th round.
Every unit on the Saints’ defense has some young dynamic playmaker except for inside linebacker. The Saints will definitely look to the draft for this youth so they can round out and complete what could be a very dynamic defense.