The most uncertain and unsettling position on the Saints' roster is linebacker. We're not entirely sure who the starters are, how the players will be used, and which guys will have prominent roles in this new defense. What we do know is there will probably be a decent amount of mixing and matching, with heavy rotation. The uncertainty is exciting, though, because with a new scheme comes new hope. Here are the players:
Curtis Lofton: As far as I'm concerned he's the only guy that's a lock to stick as a starter. He's the future of the team on this side of the ball. The one question with him is if he'll be able to adapt to a 3-4 system. He was terrific in a 4-3 in the middle spot, but a 3-4 doesn't seem to suit his skills as well. Time will tell. But as talented as Lofton in, I'm hopeful he can succeed in any system. He's by far the best ball tracker and tackler on the team. He'll make the 53 man roster as a starter.
Jonathan Vilma: No one can debate he's declining in skill and ability. The significant knee injury has sped up his deterioration from a top notch NFL linebacker to a marginal one. And the reason he was traded to the Saints in the first place was his inability to translate his skills into something productive in a 3-4 system. That was in his prime, and now he's being asked to try again in his steep decline. I'm not sure that adds up to something good, but his IQ and character are still a nice thing to have around. Sean Payton early in the offseason mentioned that he envisioned Vilma playing outside in a 3-4 scheme, but in OTAs he's been lining up alongside Lofton for the other inside spot. I guess the role he fits remains to be seen, but I still think he's got a decent chance of starting and is extremely likely to be on the 53 man roster, if healthy.
Junior Galette: The change to a 3-4 is supposed to transform his game entirely, if you believe message board guy, Galette's twitter feed, or even the coaching staff to an extent. The Saints did invest in Galette on a decent 3 year deal, suggesting they believe in him. I buy into the theory this scheme will help showcase his strengths more, his best chance to succeed in the league is as an outside linebacker in a 3-4. I'm still skeptical of his ability in coverage but we'll have to see how he's utilized and how it plays out. Galette is likely to start and will make the team, particularly with Victor Butler injured.
Will Smith: I still don't understand this move. I don't run the defense or the scheme, so I'm sure there's a method to the madness, but Smith's declining skills actually make me believe he was a better fit as an end in a 3-4 than an end in a 4-3. The idea of him blitzing off the edge or dropping back into coverage both make me pretty uncomfortable. I just don't really see him having any strength as an outside linebacker in a 3-4. To be he doesn't have the lateral speed, the blitzing skills, or the coverage. I guess it's possible he's moved back to end or cut now that his cap figure isn't as high, but I still think he's a roster lock for now, and likely to be a starter.
Martez Wilson: To me he's the most natural fit as a 3-4 linebacker than almost anyone on the roster. I'm surprised he's not running with the starters more often because I really do feel this scheme is perfect for him. If you asked me to predict one guy that would have a monster season thanks to the change, I'd pick Tez. But as we've seen so far in his career, he's yet to put it all together despite having superior size, speed and build. I have high hopes for him, though, and I'll be shocked if he's not on the roster.
Victor Butler: Projected starter until he tore his ACL running into Mark Ingram in OTAs. Tough loss, he'll likely be on injured reserve all season long.
Chris Chamberlain: Part of the 2012 free agent class, Chamberlain blew out his knee badly in preseason and is back trying to earn his spot. Chamberlain is a versatile swiss army knife of sorts that can really play decently anywhere. The Saints like this because he can double as depth to all the different linebacker positions. He's like a younger more athletic version of Scott Shanle, but he's also coming off a major injury. He showcases excellent special teams ability, so he has a decent shot at making the team if he can prove he's recovered.
David Hawthorne: Hawthorne was a starter last season in the 4-3 scheme but struggled to stay healthy which equated to a poor 2012 campaign. Now it seems as though he's buried on the depth chart. Hawthorne seems like a decent fit as an interior linebacker in the 3-4 and I pictured him as a starter, but I'm surprised to see he's really gotten almost no looks in OTAs. I wonder what that means for him this season, and I'm frankly completely unsure of where he fits or if he'll even get a chance. I think he makes the team, but I've yet to see any vote of confidence in him from the coaching staff.
Will Herring: The outside backer is a coverage guy and special teamer. He doesn't offer much else value wise. Could make the team as a backup.
Ramon Humber: He's a backup inside backer likely battling Hawthorne for a spot on the roster. He's got some thumping ability on special teams and the staff always seems to keep him around. He's played in 29 games over three seasons as a backup for the Saints, mostly on special teams, and he'll look to make his mark there again.
Rufus Johnson: Apparently hurt and currently on the "non football injury list", Johnson turned some heads as a late draft pick this season in OTAs with his length, speed and size. Sounds a lot like Martez Wilson, and he fits best as a blitzing outside backer. His potential is attractive, but he's going to have to prove he's healthy, can play special teams, and bring value if he wants to make the team. He's also a likely practice squad potential guy.
Eric Martin: He's an undrafted rookie out of Nebraska, best fit for the outside. He's unlikely to make the team but will try to make his mark with his pass rushing ability. He's also currently on the non football injury list.
Kevin Reddick: Reddick was a big time playmaker at UNC playing the interior. I think he has the skills to really play any of the four linebacker positions. Also an undrafted rookie, Reddick was listed as one of the best players to go without being picked. Many think he's a sleeper to make the roster.
Ray Shipman: Yet another undrafted rookie, he's a terrific athlete with some basketball playing ability. He's huge in size and has nice playmaking potential. Longshot to make the team, though.
Chase Thomas: Like Reddick he was one of the best undrafted rookie free agents in this year's class. He's a polished and well rounded versatile backer that lacks superior talent but makes up for it in instincts and play recognition. Like Reddick he's a sleeper pick to make the team, likely at OLB.
Prediction: With 4 linebacker spots, that leaves more room on the roster for these backups to stick. Depending on how special teams plays out, I think the Saints will definitely keep 7 linebackers and could keep as many as 8 or 9. The fact that so many rookies are on the squad means the Saints are throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks, and little conclusion has been made. This really is a wide open roster competition. I think the following are locks with Butler on IR: Smith, Lofton, Vilma, Galette and Wilson. Hawthorne is a bubble veteran. I think Chamberlain, Herring, Thomas, Johnson, Reddick and Humber are realistically battling for two spots. I think Martin and Shipman will be cut. I predict the Saints will keep eight, with the last three spots going to Reddick, Humber and Hawthorne. Chamberlain and Herring will be released, and Johnson and Thomas end up on IR or the practice squad.