Patrolling the Dome: the New Orleans Saints Linebacker Corps

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linebackers

New Orleans Saints linebacker David Hawthorne (57) was one of the league’s best blitzers in 2013, ranking third in sacks per blitz, sixth in total pressures per blitz, and ninth in tackles for loss or no gain.  Photo credit:  David Grunfeld, NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune.


The New Orleans Saints used the 2011-2012 offseason to invest heavily in the linebacker position by bringing aboard former Atlanta Falcon Curtis Lofton, former Seattle Seahawks David Hawthorne and Barrett Ruud, and former St. Louis Ram Chris Chamberlain.  The message was clear:  they wanted to upgrade in the middle of the field and on the perimeter of the tackle box.

Unfortunately this plan went awry from the start.  Chamberlain broke his leg in a preseason game and landed on Injured Reserve, Ruud was released after spending only 51 days on the roster, and Hawthorne was sidelined for six games with injuries.  Lofton underwhelmed particularly against the pass.  The team arguably still hasn’t profited from the commitments made in Lofton and Hawthorne.  Both players were signed through 2016 with Lofton receiving a club option in 2017 per Spotrac.com.  The chart below demonstrates how much money the Saints have invested in each player and what they could save by letting them go.

Year

Name

Cap Hit

Dead Money

Savings

2014

D Hawthorne

3,510,000

4,530,000

-1,020,000

C Lofton

5,200,000

8,000,000

-2,800,000

2015

D Hawthorne

6,010,000

3,020,000

2,990,000

C Lofton

9,000,000

5,000,000

4,000,000

2016

D Hawthorne

5,510,000

1,510,000

4,000,000

C Lofton

7,500,000

3,000,000

4,500,000

 

The Saints are definitely planning on Hawthorne and Lofton starting from opening day in 2014 and would actually have to pay money to release them.  But given both players’ performances thus far, it would make the most sense to release Lofton after the season, getting back $4,000,000 in 2015 and $4,500,000 in 2016.  Popular sentiment seems to indicate that Hawthorne should get the cut, but I disagree; he is less expensive than Hawthorne while not sacrificing much in the way of quality of play.  Of course, that’s assuming that a replacement can be found.

I’ve already discussed why the Saints should part ways with one or both members of the linebacker duo here, but whenever you talk about losing pieces you have to consider how to replace them.  The hopeful replacements include 2014 Fourth Round Draft selection Khairi Fortt, 2013 undrafted free agent Kevin Reddick, and veterans Ramon “Humberjack” Humber, Kyle Knox, and Todd Davis.  Of the group, only Reddick is in a contract year and none are nearing thirty years of age.  2014 is very much a critical year for every linebacker in the Saints corps from the incumbent starters to the young guns looking to succeed them.

I expect Humber, Fortt, and Reddick to make the final 53-man roster cuts behind Lofton and Hawthorne.  Per the Advocate’s Ramon Vargas, Humber declined offers from the Minnesota Vikings and New England Patriots to remain with the Saints on a one-year contract.  He was the team’s best special teams player besides punter Thomas Morstead, collecting nearly 63,000 Pro Bowl votes (9th-most among special teamers), two onside kick recoveries, and seven tackles with no misses (no other special teamer made five or more tackles while missing on no attempts).  But the “Humberjack” as he was nicknamed following his eight-tackle (five tackles for loss or no gain) performance against the Oakland Raiders in the 2013 preseason exhibition game, solidified a place for himself on the roster.

The Saints want Fortt to take over Hawthorne’s spot but I believe he would be do well with Lofton’s responsibilities.  Fortt (6’2” 248 lbs with 33 5/8” arms) is better suited to shedding blocking linemen and plugging lanes than the comparatively diminutive Lofton (6’0” 243 lbs with 31 5/8” arms) than going around blockers handled by defensive linemen as Hawthorne specializes.  Rob Ryan is known for putting his players in the best situations to succeed, and one way or another he will find how best to deploy Fortt.

Reddick is a similar story to Humber.  He is a closer to Lofton’s size (Humber is 5’11” and 232 lbs, Reddick is listed at 6’1” and 243 pounds) but was a special teams ace for the Saints in 2014, finishing second in special teams tackles with nine to Will Herring’s team-leading eleven.  Reddick has frequently been referred to by assistant head coach/linebackers coach Joe Vitt as “the smartest linebacker I’ve ever coached” and was considered by some analysts as worthy of as much as a 2013 Fourth Round Draft selection.  He has the versatility to play both inside and outside linebacker as well as defensive end from his time as a North Carolina Tar Heel. Reddick is another great young prospect whom I expect to enter September on the Saints’ roster.

The outside linebacker situation is intriguing.  For the 2014 campaign Junior Galette, Parys Haralson, Victor Butler, and Keyunta Dawson are all veterans who saw extensive action in 2013 or in Butler’s case expected to.  Newcomers Ronald Powell, Kasim Edebali, and Chidera Uzo-Diribe are all competing for practice time and second-year draft pick Rufus Johnson is splitting time at outside linebacker and defensive end.  However, Haralson, Butler, and Dawson are both scheduled to be free agents in 2015 and Galette will join them if he plays 60% of the total snaps and records at least twelve sacks, exercising his option to void the final year of his contract extension.  There is a very real possibility that the Saints could lose half of the outside linebackers currently on the roster after the season.  The chart below shows how I see the Saints’ linebacker corps shaping up in September.

ROLB

Junior Galette

Ronald Powell

RILB

Curtis Lofton

Khairi Fortt

LILB

David Hawthorne

Ramon Humber

Kevin Reddick

LOLB

Parys Haralson

Victor Butler

 

Did you like this article?  Check out my other work for Cover32 at http://cover32.com/saints/author/jsigler/, and let me know on Twitter at https://twitter.com/TBK_nola.  Follow me on Twitter for updates on my projects and all things Saints football, and feel free to drop me a line if you have a topic you’d like to see me explore in the future.  Thanks for your support, and don’t forget – training camp is only two weeks away.

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  • Lee

    Really..! You are advocating the Saints part with key members of the LB group for a group of guys that’s not NFL tested. The Saints defense was ranked 4th in the league, and you don’t think Lofton and Hawthorn had something to do with that? If the Saints make that type of drastic change to there defense, your next article will be about the horrible turn around by the defense and the Saints made bad decisions letting good quality players go. You don’t appreciate the job some players do until there gone!

  • John

    Thanks for commenting, Lee. Lofton and Hawthorne are definitely important pieces of the Saints’ defense and I respect them for the contributions they’ve made. But they’re also clearly the weakest starters on the team and can be upgraded. Neither player is strong in coverage or reliable tackling in the open field, which gives opponents something to exploit with receivers going over the middle. Hopefully one of the players I discussed in this article can get enough experience in the coming season to take over for Lofton or Hawthorne in 2015.