Going into the 2013 season there were many questions about how the Saints’ current depth chart at linebacker would fit into new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s aggressive and aclectic system.
After 18 games (including two excellent performances in the playoffs) it’s safe to say that the backers exceeded expectations. Junior Galette made his impact off the edge, and David Hawthorne and Curtis Lofton proved they were athletic enough to take on the tough task of playing inside linebacker in Ryan’s system.
But don’t expect the Saints to stand pat after last year’s success.
The team has already acknowledged that they must create more depth at pass rusher, especially if Cam Jordan continues his transition to a 3-4 defensive end in Ryan’s scheme. Also, despite the success of Hawthorne/Lofton those dudes take a lot of shots from opposing running backs and fullbacks so finding capable backups to give them a rest every now and again is essential.
Looking at the current free agent market it seems that the Saints would be better served to find players that fit those needs in May’s draft. We have yet to even reach the official beginning of free agency and two of the better options at 3-4 outside linebacker are already off the board. Brian Orakpo and Jason Worilds were both tagged by their teams (Washington and Pittsburgh respectively). That being said, don’t expect the Saints to shell out top dollars for any of the rest of this year’s crop of free agent linebackers.
Part of the reason they can avoid the free agent market in this case is their draft position. With the 27th overall pick the Saints are positioned perfectly to grab either Dee Ford or Ryan Shazier, both being guys that would fill a need at linebacker. This seems like the best option to address the need, considering the other in-house free agents they would like to re-sign (i.e. Zach Strief, Brian De La Puente, Malcolm Jenkins).
If they do turn to free agency, keep an eye on a guy like Mike Neal from Green Bay. When Neal is healthy he’s a terror to offensive tackles, his raw strength and quick feet make him a matchup nightmare. However, staying healthy has been an issue so far in his short career. If the Saints believe they can keep him healthy he should come with a pretty manageable price tag.