This is a really big year for four linebackers on the New Orleans Saints. I feel like Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Jonathan Casillas, Marvin Mitchell and Stanley Arnoux are all four at crossroads of their careers. Will they break through and become starters, or will their football careers dwindle to nothing?
That's the struggle a lot of 3rd and 4th year players face - about the time when the average NFL career ends. Eventually the team adds new young linebackers (like Martez Wilson and Nate Bussey) and your role on special teams and as a backup gets usurped by a younger player. At this point these guys need to answer this question - are they ready to be starters, or are their careers essentially over?
You don't see too many linebackers playing backup for 6+ years in the league. There are exceptions to the rule, but typically most linebackers that don't break into a starting role by Year Five end up starting careers in a new field altogether.
And that's exactly where these four guys stand as Dunbar (entering 4th season), Casillas (entering 3rd season), Arnoux (entering 3rd season), and Mitchell (entering 5th season) look to break though this year for the Saints. Is it possible any or even all of these four make the team again as a backup? Of course.
But now is as good of an opportunity as ever for these four guys, and you have to feel like the writing is on the wall for them if they don't break through NOW. Why? Because incumbent starters Scott Shanle and Danny Clark are both unrestricted free agents and we don't know if they'll be back. Even if they are back, neither player is so outstanding that they can't be beaten out by any one of the four promising youngsters I listed if they are able to put it all together (which they've yet to do).
Looking at them individually:
Dunbar - He was off to such a great start in his NFL career. We were all talking about the devastating hits he laid on special teams in his first year. That's how he got everyone's attention. There was a lot to get excited about with this undrafted rookie free agent. He hits like a mule, he runs like the wind, and he's thick. Last year was his best year in terms of raw stats and production, but I feel like he fell out of favor with the coaching staff. For some reason he dropped off the ladder as the season progressed and now I start to question how much faith the organization still has in him.
Dunbar is a restricted free agent, so my guess is he'll be back with the team. He has to prove this offseason that he's either ready to start full time, or get back to being the headhunter on special teams that the Saints can't live without. If not, I fear this could be it for him. I'm sure someone would give him a chance if he didn't make the Saints, but once you're bouncing around from roster to roster trying to make the 53 man squad, that's usually when the writing is on the wall.
Casillas - He was slated to start until he went on injured reserve for the season prior to things getting started last year. I feel like if he has a setback again, injury-wise, his career is probably done. It's just tough to make it in the NFL as an unproven player if you deal with injury issues two years in a row. When you're coming back from a major injury it's tough because you have to prove you're healthy right away. He was another undrafted rookie free agent that turned a lot of heads his rookie season when he filled in for a temporarily injured Scott Shanle at starter. This guy's ceiling is probably the highest of the four if he can stay healthy. The coaching staff adores his hitting ability and instincts. I believe he can break through if he's healthy and doesn't come back a lesser player from being shelved all year last season.
Arnoux - Like Casillas, his injury history has been his biggest enemy. He's loaded with potential and he's another guy the coaching staff is really high on. I'd say that for him, even more than Casillas, one additional injury probably ends his career for good. This really is a monumental season for him in terms of defining his career. After spending all of 2009 on injured reserve, he got very limited action last year on special teams mostly. At some point the Saints aren't going to keep hanging on to him unless his potential turns into production.
Mitchell - he's probably the most stable of the four in terms of where his career stands at this point, but he's also an unrestricted free agent. Jonathan Vilma is the unquestioned starter at MLB and Mitchell may be tempted to go elsewhere in an attempt to get more playing time. He has played very well overall in a 3-4 scheme when the Saints used him alongside Vilma as the other inside linebacker. He's been a steady and reliable backup and last year was by far his most productive season. Playing behind Vilma has most likely seasoned him better than many, but it's also going to be tough for him to ever crack the starting lineup with the Saints. If he comes back to New Orleans, it'll be in the same role. He could be one of those few "career backup" or role player type guys, unless someone gives him an opportunity elsewhere to start. If that happens, he'd be smart to leave and jump on it.
How do you see this year shaking out for these young, promising players? Do you agree that they're at crossroads in their careers and that it's now or never?