Since Rob Ryan has taken the helm for the Saints in 2014, his linebackers haven't exactly been top notch talents. Arguably the best one has been OLB Junior Galette, and Galette is really a pass rush specialist, rarely dropping into coverage. The Saints have spent a lot of their offseason trying to shore up the position, and whether or not they succeeded is a complete mystery going into the season.
Curtis Lofton has been the anchor at ILB for the last few years, but his abrupt dismissal from the team left a void that had to be addressed. During free agency, the Saints didn't do much to fill his gap, only adding former Raven ILB and Dolphins' MLB (in the 4-3) Dannell Ellerbe through a trade for WR Kenny Stills (leaving gaps that are for another article). Ellerbe was panned in Miami, but that was more for his inability to stay healthy than general incompetence in the new 4-3 system, after being widely recognized as a strong LB in Baltimore (though it would be folly not to concede that Baltimore can accentuate its defensive talent).
In the draft, the Saints took quite a few more strides to address the LB position. They flipped a pick that they picked up from Seattle into Clemson ILB Stephone Anthony, who will likely be called upon to be a day one starter. With their very next pick in the second round, the Saints took University of Washington's Hau'oli Kikaha, a pass rusher that was tied for the league in sacks in 2014. With the controversy that Galette has been embroiled in for the last few months, this pick is looking more and more important, and Kikaha must prove that he is worth the high, arguably reaching draft pick.
Lost somewhere in the shuffle is ILB David Hawthorne, who has played alongside Lofton and has been in the Ryan offense since it's been implemented in New Orleans. Hawthorne, once praised for his coverage, struggled last season (although this was a theme throughout the 2014 season for the NO defense). Hawthorne should be in the mix to compete for his position at ILB with either Ellerbe or Anthony, and his veteran status could make him an important figurehead in the Saints' defense, albeit as a signal caller (as relegating those duties to a rookie could be a bit overwhelming).
The Saints also re-signed Parys Haralson to another season. Haralson is the furthest thing from a mystery, the Saints know what they get out of him. He specializes in sealing off the backside of the running game (think cutbacks), and he is a gap assignment linebacker. He isn't flashy, he prefers to stick to his gaps, and he is capable of blitzing from the weakside of the formation opposite Galette if need be.
The linebacker position should see a lot of rotation in 2015. Hawthorne may start the season playing games, but if Ellerbe or Anthony show a rapid ability to grasp their positions in a signal calling capacity, he may see that spot usurped at the end of the year. Kikaha and Galette (presuming the latter plays often) will likely only be on the field together in special packages (unless one of the two plays some DE) as their skill sets are a bit redundant. Kikaha doesn't have the move arsenal that Galette does, but he'll have to show that his explosive first step in college can translate to the NFL level. Haralson will likely spend a lot of time on the field, a steady, reliable presence, but he can be pulled if the Saints need some more explosive plays.
There's a lot of talent at linebacker for NO, but it's unproven talent. If I were to project (and the title of the article is pretty indicative of whether or not I will), I would expect for Haralson to be the Sam (strong side) OLB, Anthony and Hawthorne to start the season inside with the latter eventually being replaced by Ellerbe as he settles back into the 3-4, and Galette to be playing the Jack (weak side pass rushing OLB). However, Ryan loves his packages and rotations, so these players will see a lot of time shifting on and off the field.
The Saints are running an experiment this year. Cutting Lofton was a statement move, and it suggests that they're looking to be more explosive in this level of their defense. Depending on Galette's ability to settle down and play in addition to the newbies' abilities to acclimate in the new system, the Saints' linebacking corps should take strides to help their defensive line (which also had its struggles) in the trenches for the 2015 season. The emphasis seems to be on minding gaps and coverage, rather than trying to blow up plays. But where the Saints' linebackers truly struggled was in the running game. That was Lofton's strong suit, so while they took a step backwards after they cut him, they should really emphasize following assignments in camp (although this is conjecture).
Furthermore, the Saints wanted speed. They got it in Anthony, while Ellerbe is a question mark. Coverage assignments are harder for linebackers in the NFL these days, with tight ends in particular bigger and faster than seemingly ever before. Ryan likes to use packages and zones to mask incompetence in coverage, but a bit of competition and, hopefully, raw talent should help the Saints lock down the middle of the field.
The way too early grade for this corps hovers around a C+ B-. They don't look atrocious on paper, but they're not top flight. The 3-4 that Ryan runs is a lot of shifts and packages, so how he uses them will prove very important. But the Saints have a lot of youth and untested guys, so it really could go either way with them.