The Dome Patrol.
Three words that need no introduction. No verbal praise. No 2,000 word article. When a football fan thinks "Dome Patrol," they think of one of, if not the, best linebacker groups of all time. A 3-4 defense that was a perfect assembly of talented linebackers ready to make a difference, willing to dare opposing offenses to outscore a middle of the road Saints offense.
Today, the Saints offense is no doubt one of the best offenses in football. Rob Ryan's 3-4 is not depended upon to produce another Dome Patrol, but there is no denying that the Saints are hoping to get more out of the linebackers in 2013.
I will introduce you to a group of men that could have a huge impact or a lot of blame for the progression of the Saints' defense in 2013. There may be no competition more interesting than the linebacker position, as it could mean so much to the Saints' success in the NFC South.
LOCKS TO MAKE THE ROSTER:
If you want to chalk one player down as a starting LB for the Saints, Curtis Lofton is your man. After a 94 tackle rookie season, Lofton recorded 115 or more total tackles in each of his 4 seasons after that. He is only 27, but has not proven to be a great pass rusher or pass defender. However, he may be the best run defender in the linebacker core. Expect another 100+ tackle season and hope for a few more sacks and/or better pass defense in 2013.
What to watch: Look for Lofton to be all over the field, but will he adapt to the 3-4 change smoothly or will he struggle to be in the right position to make plays? I have a feeling that his athletic ability and talent will adapt well to the change and he will have another HUGE season as an inside linebacker for the new Saints defense.
After a huge disappointing season in New Orleans, Hawthorne could be ready for a big season in 2013. Like Lofton following his rookie season, Hawthorne went on to record 100+ tackles each of his last 3 seasons as a Seahawk. In those 3 seasons, Hawthorne had 7 INTs, so he does have the ability to actually be more versatile than the reliable Lofton. The 2012 season was a disaster, but I don't think we saw the real Hawthorne under Spags.
What to watch: If David Hawthorne can play up to his expectations in 2013, Saints fans will see that we actually did add a very talented player. If he avoids injury, Hawthorne may rebound from what was by far his worst season in the NFL. While I expect Hawthorne to get significant playing time, he has a lot to prove to the Saints nation and better start proving it right away.
For the past three seasons, Junior Galette has yet to find his home as a starter. Will he find his opportunity in 2013? In limited playing time, Galette has managed to collect 9 sacks in two seasons of part time play from the defensive line position. Based upon his size, Galette may make a smooth transition to the outside linebacker position and could be a huge pass rush sleeper in 2013. Nathan Jahnke of Pro Football Focus calls him a "Secret Superstar" and writes a nice article about Galette, which you can read by clicking here.
What to watch: I look forward to seeing if Galette has any ability in defending the pass. I feel good about his pass rush, but am anxious to see if he can adapt from his new position. His 40 time has been clocked around 4.8, so he will not be winning any track meets anytime soon. With the possible depth at outside linebacker, it is possible that the Saints will rotate the outside linebackers pretty often. This may be best for Galette to ease in to his new role.
While I am not completely sold that Smith is a great choice for outside linebacker, he definitely seems like he would be a better pass rusher in his new position at his age. I am concerned by his weight, speed, and quickness. If he doesn't shed a few pounds, he may have a tough time competing for the playing time that he is used to.
What to watch: While Smith has been a disappointment at times, its hard to ignore the fact that he has 67.5 sacks in 9 seasons. He may prove to be a versatile pass rusher that will play multiple positions. I don't see Smith being even a decent pass defender, so he may be more of a situation type player instead of an every down player.
Hello Mr. Wild Card. The tale of Martez Wilson has yet to be written, as he has been a man without a steady position since being drafted as a 3rd round pick in 2011. The Illinois alum has proven to be a hell of an athlete, but has not yet been given the opportunity to see significant playing time. It seems like part of the problem is due to the slow development of the athletic Wilson, but could this be the year that he makes a splash on this defense?
What to watch: Since day one, I have loved the potential of what Wilson brings to the table. He is an awesome athlete, but the question becomes how will Wilson fit into the 2013 plans? With the injury to Victor Butler, Wilson is one of the linebackers that will need to step it up a notch. Hopefully, this will be the year that the mental and physical parts of the game come together as one for a player with tremendous upside.
Jonathan Vilma may have something left in the tank, but this is the same guy that came to us because he had no desire to continue to play in the 3-4. At 31, he may be ready to simply adapt. The last couple of seasons have not been kind to Vilma and could mean that he could be nothing more than a reserve. Is he fine with that? Going from captain to reserve is not an easy transition for any ego. Vilma will have to work extremely hard to earn more minutes than some of the younger, more athletic guys on this roster.
What to watch: Where will Vilma play? Outside? Inside? He is a solid pass defender and he is pretty versatile. I feel he would be an excellent player to plug in everywhere. In 6 of 9 seasons, Vilma is also a 100+ tackle linebacker. But after 2 straight disappointing seasons, it is time to see if Vilma still fits this team. While I believe that Vilma will be a Saint on opening day, he has a lot to prove to a new defensive coordinator who had some animals at linebacker in Dallas.
Will Herring is a veteran player that can serve as a nice backup inside linebacker. His chances of making this roster may depend more on his impact as a special teams player. He plays that role well, so if the 30 year old proves his worth there, Herring may break through over the younger guys on the defensive depth chart.
What to watch: Herring has 22 total tackles in 2 seasons as a Saint. He was already cut once this year, then brought back. I wonder about this change of heart, because it only took about a week or so to resign him after cutting him. He was resigned before the draft, so it is possible that the Saints may have a rookie or two that may impress enough on special teams and show future potential. Herring's job as a Saint is not safe.
Here is another player with a lot to prove in 2013. After coming over with Spags, he didn't play a single snap in 2012. There is no allegiance to Chamberlain in 2013, so he will have to prove his worth over a big group of young athletes ready to do anything to make an NFL roster.
What to watch: Chamberlain was an excellent special teams player in St. Louis in 2011, but has proven nothing since. He must have a big preseason, or I can easily see him being cut. Herring and Chamberlain may be competing for a similar roster spot, so I will be surprised if both make the final roster.
Humber is another capable backup. He's only 26 years old, so if all things are equal, Humber may have an advantage over Herring and/or Chamberlain on special teams. While he may be a little undersized, Humber has had a few nice moments in limited opportunities. He also has very good speed for a linebacker, clocking in with high 4.4/low 4.5 40 times.
What to watch: How will Ryan use Humber's speed in preseason? Will he be someone who could see the field in certain passing situations? Will the undersized linebacker be used in blitz packages? He will make his mark as a valued member of the special teams unit. Unless he performs horribly as a 3-4 linebacker in preseason, Humber may be safe.
The Saints bring in 5 rookies to compete for roster spots. Most of the time, rookie undrafted free agents are more or less camp fillers for a position such as linebacker. This year, the Saints did a fantastic job finding 4 undrafted rookies who could really turn some heads in camp and preseason. But first, Bill and Ted want to introduce our 6th round pick: Rufus.
The Tarleton State product may be the least known of the rookies (even to the typical die hard college football fan). The Saints see a big linebacker who has pretty good speed for his size (high 4.6/low 4.7 in the 40). He looks like a project for 2013, but there is a lot of competition here. A sixth round pick is no guarantee to make the roster, but will he be another one of those fan favorite small school players to break through and claim his spot as a Saint?
What to watch: Everything. In 34 years, I have watched ZERO Tarleton State games. The footage on Johnson is so limited, so I am anxious to see what the Saints see in Rufus that made him a desirable player to draft.
Chase Thomas (UDFA): Graded pre-draft as a potential 2nd-4th round pick, the two time first team All Pac-12 linebacker went undrafted. I thought this was an excellent risk free pick up by the Saints. If Thomas can continue to be the impact player he was at Stanford, the Saints may have them a new Chase to have faith in.
Kevin Reddick (UDFA): As a team captain and four year starter, Reddick made an impact on North Carolina's defense. While Reddick has some deficiencies stopping the run, the projected 4th round pick was also undrafted. Physically, Reddick could be a surprise for the Saints if he puts it all together in camp.
Eric Martin (UDFA): There is a lot to like about Martin's physical upside. The thought of a 250 pound linebacker with true 4.5 speed sounds wonderful to me. He only started one season as a senior, where he had a first team all Big 10 season at the defensive end position. He doesn't have the experience of most of the guys that he is competing against, so it will be interesting to see if he even makes it through the first cuts.
Ray Shipman (UDFA): Ray showed that he has the ability to get to the ball carrier at Central Florida. While the odds seem to be against him, Shipman is a heck of an athlete who played basketball and football at the collegiate level.
When the Saints acquired Victor Butler from Dallas, I thought it was about as good of a pick up as we could afford. Familiar with Ryan's defense and tucked behind Ware and Spencer on the depth chart, 2013 could have been a breakout season for the 5th year Oregon State alum. Unfortunately, all he can do is watch while 14 other players compete for the opportunity to begin a new era with the Saints defense.
Rebuilding the defense is a huge necessity in 2013, but rebuilding the special teams unit may be just as important. Players like Jim Leonhard and Chris Carr may make the roster in hopes of producing better results in kick and punt coverage, but there may be a couple of linebackers that make the roster primarily for their skills in that role.
I will be really surprised if Lofton, Hawthorne, Smith, Galette, Wilson, and Vilma did not make this roster. There could be 3-4 open spots remaining for linebackers, so nearly any combination of the remaining competitors could make this roster. That is what makes this camp battle the one to watch this preseason.
If I had to choose right now, I like Humber and Thomas. The other one or two spots should go to either Herring, Chamberlain, and/or Reddick. Yeah, it's a pretty weak prediction, but there is a lot to like about so many of these candidates.
So that's it. Will there be a rookie or two who will shine and earn some playing time? Will the veterans prove that they all still belong and send the rookies packing?
The next preview will bring us to the offensive side of the ball, as we take a look at the running backs that hope to get the running game back on track in 2013.
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- New Orleans Saints Podcast: Reid Gilbert on Bountygate, Roger Goodell and 2012 Saints
- New Orleans Saints' Roster Top 25 Players: No. 21, Charles Brown
- Joe Morgan: Continuing a Tradition of Saints Field Stretchers