A look at the New Orleans Saints linebackers through the first six weeks of the 2013 season:
Looking back: Outside linebacker Junior Galette is having a breakout season now that he’s a full-time starter in his fourth year. He has three sacks while playing a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end role. He also has 16 hurries and six quarterback hits, according to Pro Football Focus, many of which have led to sacks by teammates. And he made two big-time run stuffs behind the line of scrimmage last week at New England that were as good as sacks. Galette has stepped up at a time when he was sorely needed, with veteran outside linebackers Will Smith and Victor Butler suffering major injuries this summer.
Veteran inside linebacker Curtis Lofton has continued to be a solid every-down player as the team’s signal-caller and a defensive captain. He leads the team with 47 tackles (though PFF has him credited for seven missed tackles, which is tied for fifth in the NFL). Fellow starter David Hawthorne has also been solid, showing improvement after an injury-plagued 2012 season. Both starters have played at a similar solid level -- both slightly better against the run, both with one sack on blitzes.
Backups Ramon Humber, Parys Haralson and Martez Wilson have all made decent contributions as seldom-used backups. The Saints play so much nickel and dime defense that they don’t rotate in that many linebackers. Wilson’s lack of playing time has been a surprise after he’s shown flashes as a dynamic athlete in the past. But part of the reason could be the schemes New Orleans prefers to play, and part of the reason could be how well Galette is playing.
Looking forward: It will be interesting to see how the Saints decide to add veteran inside linebacker Jonathan Vilma to the mix once he’s eligible to come off of short-term injured reserve next week. Vilma just began practicing on Monday (officially confirmed by NFL transactions log), so they’ll probably bring him along slowly. And it’s hard to predict how effective he’ll be after being plagued by a knee injury off and on for more than two years. But if the Saints like what they see in practice, he could rotate in with Hawthorne and Humber.
The Saints will continue to rely heavily on Galette going forward as their most dynamic pass-rusher. I expect him to keep delivering. But his health will be crucial to the Saints’ fortunes since they don’t have a proven pass-rusher behind him.
ESPN scouting Insider Matt Williamson’s take: “I think Galette’s a good fit here, and he’s come on well. He was pretty productive as a pass-rusher even before this season. And he didn’t get a whole lot of opportunities, but he still would show up on tape consistently when he was out there. So I think he’s long deserved to get this shot, and the scheme change helps him a lot. … And then the inside guys are average. That’s not a knock – I know you call people average, they think that’s a bad thing. But I think they’re just an average group on the inside and not really difference-makers there.”