In part 3 we will take a look at the linebackers. Next will be the secondary.
Last year we found our defensive leader when the Saints traded for Jonathan Vilma, and the Saints were very smart to sign him to a 4 year deal to keep him around.
Middle Linebacker: Vilma is our unquestioned starter here, and was our team leader in tackles in 2008 and played every defensive snap.
Behind Vilma come the battle, Marvin Mitchell is the incumbent here but he only got to see the field last year on special teams. Mitchell is big, 247 pounds and strong but his detriment is his speed he runs more like a defensive end than a linebacker does. A possibility could be moving over to the strongside if he gets beat out for the backup job at MLB.
Mark Simoneau who was our starter in 2006-07 is returning off the IR but don’t look for him to have an easy road for a roster spot. He is a good locker room guy and leader but only a marginal player and being on the wrong side of 30 means there is no upside for him. Barring an injury he will most likely be a pre season cut because of the upside of the younger linebackers we have.
Anthony Waters was also signed and is one of those low risk high-reward type of guys. He is the 2nd most physically talented MLB behind Vilma and is only entering his 3rd year. Originally a 3rd round pick by San Diego, Waters missed his rookie season while rehabbing an injury that he struggled with into his 2nd year. He has the talent but the biggest question is can he stay healthy? If he can make the coaching staff confident he is and can stay healthy he should win the job as the #2 behind Vilma
Weakside Linebacker has been an area of some debate, we have returning 3 year starter in Scott Shanle and while he is a smart, heady overachieving player he lacks the pure athleticism need to cover tight ends and running backs. If you are one of those guys who wants to see him replaced you may be in luck this year.
Dan Morgan is the guy I believe will be our starter when the season begins, a former 1st round pick and prowler with the Carolina Panthers, Morgan has been beset by numerous concussions over his career but when healthy he is one of the best in the league. He has spent his career playing the middle but will be moved to the weakside here which should benefit both him and the team. He will no longer been taking on tackles and blockers head on but will be doing it more in pursuit, he will be ok so rest assured Saints fans.
JoLonn Dunbar is an undrafted rookie who impressed last year with his special teams play and hard hits, Dunbar played both outside spots last year as a reserve but should be focused more on the weakside this year. He is an under-sized player who makes up for it with his aggressiveness and intelligence.
The one guy not to overlook here is undrafted rookie Jonathon Casillas, a very athletic linebacker out of Wisconsin. Casillas was projected as high as a 4th round prospect but slid and didn’t get drafted mostly because he was rehabbing surgery to correct an MCL sprain he played his senior year. He was unable to participate in the combine or Wisconsin’s proday, which is a huge benefit to the Saints being able to get him. Casillas is undersized at 6-2 226 but makes up for it with his speed and agility. He has been reported to run an unofficial 4.41 at Wisconsin and he has the agility to cover tight ends and running backs very effectively the other thing going for him is a lot of scouts and personnel men believe he could make the transition to strong safety as well.
Strongside Linebacker could also see some changes. Scott Fujita is the starter and one of the team leaders but don’t expect to see his backup Troy Evans make the final 53 man roster this year since he only provides depth on special teams. Instead look for Scott Shanle or Marvin Mitchell to be tried out here and maybe even both. If this happens I will give the edge to Shanle because of his experience and a platoon of Shanle and Fujita would help keep them both fresh down the stretch when we are fighting for a playoff spot.
While the Saints were unable to bring in another impact linebacker they have brought in competition and it could spawn our next impact player, which looks to be Dan Morgan at WLB.
Here is how I think the LB depth could look come season start
SLB Scott Fujita, Scott Shanle
MLB Jonathon Vilma, Anthony Waters
WLB Dan Morgan, JoLonn Dunbar, Jonathan Casillas (if the Saints carry a 7th LB)