Training Camp 2008: Breakdown of the Saints Weakside Linebackers

Mark Simoneau

2007 Summary:

Scott Shanle did such a great job in 2006 that he got a nice contract before the 2007 season. Unfortunately, his tackle totals went down and had no sacks (3 in 2006) in 2007. Shanle had a tendency to disappear in games. Some could attribute it to bad D-line play, but then why didn’t Fujita’s numbers go down? Some could attribute it to a change in scheme. It’s been discussed that Gibbs went from an attack defense to a read-and-react defense, not sending players like Shanle in on blitzes.

2008 Offseason:

During the initial free agency period the Saints only major linebacker brought in was Vilma via a trade with the Jets. Some expected a WLB to be picked up in the draft or a lingering veteran (such as Takeo Spikes or Ian Gold) to hold things down, but Sean Payton has said that they want to bring in young talent rather than older veterans at LB. To that end the Saints have brought in UDFA Jo-Lonn Dunbar and 1 year journeyman William Kershaw.

Player summary:

LBs on roster as of today (in the order listed on the Saints website when sorting by position):

William Kershaw (52)
Scott Fujita (55) – Starting SLB
Mark Simoneau (53)
Troy Evans (54)
Scott Shanle (58)
Jo-Lonn Dunbar (56)
Marvin Mitchell (50)
Jonathan Vilma (51) – Assumed staring MLB

William Kershaw:
Jersey Number: 52
School: Maryland
Year: Senior
Drafted: UDFA 2006 (Chiefs)
Experience: 2 years
Height: 6-3
Weight: 240
40-Time: 4.63 (Combine)

Kershaw started his career by being signed as an UDFA by the Kansas City Chiefs. He spent most of his first year on the practice squad, being activated for the final regular season game and a subsequent playoff game. He stayed with the Chiefs into 2007, but was cut and picked up by the Eagles for their practice squad. He went back and forth to the Texans and Eagle, before finally signing with the Broncos this offseason. For some reason the Broncos waived him soon after and the Saints signed him. Kershaw has no statistics attributed to him for any of the games he was activated for.

Kershaw has the measurable that you would want from a LB in the NFL, but has not been able to get on the field with three teams, and has been quickly waived by two teams who have signed him so far. That leaves the question of why? What is wrong to cause this player to have been on 5 teams in essentially a 12 month time frame? Whatever it is, he could be a wildcard in the WLB race at Saints camp. Coming out of no where and producing. Or he could be a camp body that will be cut.

Mark Simoneau:
Jersey Number: 53
School: Kansas State
Year: Senior
Drafted: 3rd round 2000 (Falcons)
Experience: 9 years
Height: 6-0
Weight: 245
40-Time: 4.61 (Combine)

Simoneau was acquired via a draft day trade in 2006 with the Philadelphia Eagles. He had been drafted by the Falcons, but was never able to produce for them and after an injury riddled 2002 season, was traded to the Eagles. At the WLB position in Philadelphia, he had the most tackles in a season in his career with 100 in 2003. The injury bug returned in the 2004 season and never returned to the starting line-up for the Eagles even in 2005. Known as a smart player, he was put in the MLB spot for the last two years, even though his talents are considered to be more suited for the WLB spot.

Simoneau wasn’t spectacular for the Saints in 2006, gathering 61 tackles, 1 sack and 1 interception. Considering the MLB slot is usually a high traffic position, and the Saints acquired a few mid-grade free agents in an attempt to replace him, but none were able to. In 2007, Simoneau only improved to 70 tackles, 1 sack and no INTs, which is apparently not what the Saints want from their MLB. With the acquisition of Jonathan Vilma, it is assumed that Simoneau will slide behind Vilma in the depth charts, but instead it may mean a move to WLB. With a true thumper of a MLB in Marvin Mitchell on the team, it may give the Saints the freedom to move him over.

That makes the most sense for Simoneau and could be a boon for his production and the Saints. It will be interesting to see what happens with Mark through TC. He may even end up as the SLB (Strongside Linebacker) backup behind Fujita. It is highly unlikely that Simoneau will not be on the final roster somewhere.

Troy Evans:
Jersey Number: 54
School: Cinncinati
Year: Senior
Drafted: UDFA 2001 (Rams)
Experience: 7 years
Height: 6-3
Weight: 238
40-Time: 4.85 (Combine)

Troy Evans is mostly a special teams player. He is not generally considered to be a potential starter at the LB position. Evans created his special teams pedigree over 5 years with the Texans, often leading the team in special teams tackles. He has an interesting career statistic, which is two special teams fumble recoveries in his career. Evans may end up being a backup LB, but more than likely will be purely a special teams player if he makes the roster.

Scott Shanle:
Jersey Number:
School: Nebraska
Year: Senior
Drafted: 7th Round 2003 (Rams)
Experience: 6 years
Height: 6-2
Weight: 245
40-Time: 4.72 (Combine)

Shanle came out of college as a projected 7th round pick in 2003 with the Rams making the projections correct. He finished fourth on the Huskers defense his senior year with 71 total tackles and wasn’t overly impressive. The Rams dropped him midway through his first year with the Cowboys picking him up, but never playing him. He started in three games in 2004 and eight games in 2005, but never captured the full time starting role. The Saints scooped up Shanle when Sean Payton left Dallas for the Saints in 2006.

As his first year as a full time starter in the NFL, Scott Shanle had a team high 97 tackles and 4 sacks in 2006. He was rewarded with a $12 Million dollar contract before the 2007 season and expectations were high. Unfortunately, Shanle seemed to disappear in games in 2007 and landed only 68 tackles and no sacks. That performance has a lot of people wondering if he will be replaced in 2008.

But Shanle may well be the best WLB on the team and could prove that by winning the starting job and having another year like 2006. Even if he does do that, Shanle probably will not be a super-star LB, simply because he lacks the athletic prowess needed to do so. But this could be said about any of the other contenders for WLB. Last year could have been a product of a wider issue throughout the defense. Just like the other players being considered to replace him, Shanle will have to rely on others performing well in order to make good plays and have a good year.

With an improved D-line and better overall more aggressive scheme, Shanle (or whoever wins the WLB spot) will probably look better than he did in 2007, if he’s starting in 2008.

Jo-Lonn Dunbar:
Jersey Number: 56
School: Boston College
Year: Senior
Drafted: UDFA 2008 (Saints)
Experience: Rookie
Height: 6-0
Weight: 226
40-Time: 4.85 (Combine)

Jo-Lonn Dunbar entered Boston College as a running back, but was converted to a LB as a red-shirt freshman and took to the new position quickly. He was the captain of the Eagle’s defense in the last two years he played there, giving him the leadership experience that a coach likes to have in a player. While leading that BC defense, he was never physically dominant, but he always seemed to be in the right place and making plays. In both 2006 and 2007, Dunbar had over 90 total tackles, several tackles for loss and an interception in each year. That shows he has great instincts and awareness, an intangible that a LB needs to succeed.

Dunbar had a poor performance at the combine, however, falling behind in not just the 40 yard dash, but in most athletic drills. An interesting note though is that he was listed at 231 lbs at the combine, despite playing at BC at 226 and being listed at 226 by the Saints now. That could mean that Dunbar tried to put on too much weight to fit into the “ideal” linebacker size, which is usually around 240 lbs. Or it could mean nothing and Dunbar will be another UDFA fans pull for who ends on special teams or cut altogether.

Just to get Saints fan’s hopes up though, the buzz around Saints camp is that Jo-Lonn Dunbar is looking good. He is, after all, one of those over-achievers types Sean Payton likes. He’s just “a football player” as the cliché goes. Don’t take that as a sign he is in good shape for stealing the WLB spot from Scott Shanle just yet, but it certainly could help him make the roster if he doesn’t start. And it may make him that guy the Saints will wince and think hard about if they try to cut him and sneak him onto the practice squad.

Marvin Mitchell:
Jersey Number: 50
School: Tennessee
Year: Senior
Drafted: 7th Round 2008 (Saints)
Experience: 1 year
Height: 6-3
Weight: 249
40-Time: 4.87 (Combine)

In college, Mitchell had always been a promising LB, but never really was able to show it, either because of injuries or other issues that kept him off the football field until his final year at Tennessee. In his senior year (2006), Mitchell had 104 tackles, including 10 for a loss, and was a team captain for the Volunteers.

Prior to 2006 he had only 50 tackles, starting in two games out of twenty-seven games that he played in over three seasons for the Volunteers. He also performed poorly at the 2007 combine with no weight variations like Dunbar had in 08’ as possible explanations.

So Mitchell comes in with some questions. Was he a one year wonder at Tennessee? Is he best suited to be a special teams player and a short yardage thumper? Is he going to be the starter the Saints need at one of the linebacker positions? Mitchell is the ideal size for a linebacker and has one year under his belt with the Saints, making it through the entire 2007 season. That gives him an advantage over Dunbar and Kershaw, both of whom will be just getting used to the Saints scheme, language and chemistry.

Mitchell seems well suited to be Vilma’s backup at middle linebacker, so he probably has a good shot at making the final roster even if he gets beat out at the WLB position.

Competition Summary:

With only eight players for probably six positions to fill on the roster, the Saints seem light at linebacker going into training camp. There has been speculation about several veteran linebackers still available as free agents as this article is written. They include Takeo Spikes, Ian Gold, Al Wilson, Junior Seau, Jeremiah Trotter and a host more. It seems that at both linebacker and running back, there are a lot of older NFL players who were good veterans still on the market.

The Saints have said publicly though that they want to get younger at linebacker, not older. So bringing in one of these veteran linebackers does not appear to be what the Saints are publicly saying they will do. Don’t be surprised though if one of the aging veterans does end up on the roster before the opening game against the Bucs.

With that said, Shanle will be hard pressed to return to 2006 form or face being dropped in the depth charts or cut. It is doubtful that he will be cut unless some of the rookies and maybe Simoneau really shine and make him expendable. The Saints showed a willingness to play rookies and wild cards on defense in 2006, but seemed unwilling to do so in 2007. Many of the same veterans from 2006 played in 2007, despite some fans thinking that they were outperformed by their backup.

One would expect that Shanle, Vilma, Simoneau and Fujita will end up on the final roster, even if one or two of them isn’t starting. Assuming six LB spots that leaves two spots open and two players out in the cold. Mitchell could be locked into the backup MLB role if he can fill Troy Evan’s spot as the special teams guy. Otherwise Evans may eat up a backup roll, leaving Dunbar and Kershaw off the roster.

Expect to see a hardy battle between Shanle, Simoneau, Dunbar and Mitchell for the open WLB starting role. If either Mitchell or Simoneau win the starting WLB, the other will most likely be the backup MLB, Shanle being the generic OLB backup and only one spot will be open for Evans, Dunbar or Kershaw. However, if Dunbar wins the starting WLB role, it could really shake up the roster. Could Shanle and Simoneau stick as the backup OLBs with Mitchell as the backup MLB? Or could that mean that one of the vets will be dropped from the roster all together?

As mentioned before, the scheme and personnel changes to the defense will probably make whoever wins the starting WLB job look better than Shanle did in 2007. Another very interesting battle to watch in training camp!

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One Response to “Training Camp 2008: Breakdown of the Saints Weakside Linebackers”

  1. Tony Derbigny says:

    First of all I want to send great respect to Mr Jean-Paul Bergeaux. In my opinion you did a better job writing this article than 90% of the guys who get paid top dollar to do it. Now, in regards to the article itself, i feel that if someone truly steps up and plays well at this spot we could be listed as having one of the the best linebacking corps in the league. In my opinion a elite linbacking crew can nearly nullify small holes in d-line play as well as cornerback play because they have the versatility to be all over the field. I Just pray that either Shanle returns to his 2006 form or we have a diamond in the rough to play with those other two guys. (Scott Fujita is the most underrated linebacker in the NFL)

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