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Ranking Saints needs: No. 4 Inside linebacker

A position-by-position look at where the New Orleans Saints stand heading into the 2015 offseason -- ranked from 1-12 in order of the team's need for upgrades or replacements.

Current depth chart:

Curtis Lofton. Age 28, signed through 2016. 2015 salary and bonuses: $7 million. 2015 salary-cap number: $9 million.

David Hawthorne. Age 29, signed through 2016. 2015 salary and bonuses: $4.5 million. 2015 salary-cap number: $6.01 million.

Ramon Humber. Age 27, unrestricted free agent.

Kyle Knox. Age 25, scheduled to become exclusive-rights free agent in 2016. 2015 salary and bonuses: $510,000. 2015 salary-cap number: $510,000.

Moise Fokou. Age 29, unrestricted free agent.

Jerry Franklin. Age 27, scheduled to become exclusive-rights free agent in 2016. 2015 salary and bonuses: $660,000. 2015 salary-cap number: $660,000.

Analysis:

I'm higher than most on Lofton, who made a strong case for defensive MVP after having his best year yet in three seasons in New Orleans. But I still think this is the "solid but unspectacular" group. The problem is that Lofton, Hawthorne, Humber and outside linebacker Parys Haralson are all similar-style players -- veteran guys who aren't dynamic athletes and who are better in run defense than pass coverage.

The Saints need to add one or two guys to the overall linebacking corps who can cover more ground from sideline to sideline and hang with tight ends in pass coverage. Just like I said last year, the Saints need their own version of rival NFC South studs Lavonte David and Thomas Davis. I'm not sure if they can count on finding that player in Round 1 or 2 of the draft, so they may have to consider free-agent options.

The Saints will also have big contract decisions to make with Lofton and Hawthorne, both of whom have big paydays due. I think Lofton should be safe since he's so valuable on and off the field, though some scouting analysts disagree (see Matt Williamson's take below). Pro Football Focus has also always loved to criticize Lofton, which is odd to me, because they actually credited him for leading the NFL with 123 tackles. And they had him ranked seventh in the league with 58 "stops," which they define as solo tackles that resulted in an offensive failure. However, PFF also had Lofton with 22 missed tackles, which tied for second in the NFL.

Hawthorne has also been decent over the past two years -- his three-sack performance against Chicago was the highlight --but he's been inconsistent. He'll likely have to agree to a significant pay cut to remain in New Orleans.

ESPN scouting insider Matt Williamson's take:

"I think they're very ordinary. And they've got a fair amount of money tied up in that group for just average production. I don't think either one of them (Lofton and Hawthorne) is all that great in coverage, and in today's NFL that's really what stirs the drink. You really gotta run with tight ends and cover a lot of space. I think they're more run-stoppers, but they're not great at it. So I think they're replaceable. If you've gotta cut corners, that wouldn't be a bad place to start.

"I can't say I studied Lofton thoroughly. He didn't stand out as a massive liability. But I kind of think he is who he is, and I would say his best years are probably behind him. I thought he had a couple good years where he was an impact player, but I wouldn't say he's that anymore."

Previous rankings:

No. 12: Specialists

No. 11: Quarterback

No. 10: Tight end

No. 9: Running back

No. 8: Safety

No. 7: Offensive tackle

No. 6: Wide receiver

No. 5: Defensive line