Ranking Saints' draft needs: No. 1 Inside linebacker

A position-by-position look at the New Orleans Saints’ draft needs, ranked in order of importance from 1-14:

Current depth chart:

David Hawthorne. Age 29. Signed through 2016.

Parys Haralson. Age 31. Signed through 2015.

Dannell Ellerbe. Age 29. Signed through 2017.

Ramon Humber. Age 27. Signed through 2016.

Kyle Knox. Age 26. Scheduled to become exclusive rights free agent in 2016.

Jerry Franklin. Age 27. Scheduled to become restricted free agent in 2016.

Draft possibilities: The only reason I hesitated to rank this No. 1 on New Orleans’ list is because I don’t see any prospects being rated high enough for pick No. 13. But once the Saints get to picks No. 31, 44 and beyond, it should be a huge priority.

The Saints need to get more athletic and dynamic at linebacker, where they haven’t really had anyone who’s great at tracking down runners in the open field or dropping back in coverage throughout the Sean Payton era. Plus, they need to get younger, since all three of their projected starters will be 30 by the end of the year with no one really waiting in the wings to replace them.

I lumped Haralson into this group, even though he’s an outside linebacker, because he gets used as more of a run-defense specialist than an edge-rusher (which I ranked as New Orleans’ No. 2 need).

The Saints should have a good group of candidates to choose from with those No. 31 and 44 picks -- whether they’re looking for more of an athletic speed guy on the weak side or a bigger thumper inside.

As I’ve written before, I’m most intrigued by the more athletic guys like UCLA’s Eric Kendricks (6-0, 232), Washington’s Shaq Thompson (6-0, 228) and TCU’s Paul Dawson (6-0, 235) because I think they’d bring an element the Saints defense has sorely lacked for years. ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said Kendricks is the best cover linebacker he’s seen in maybe three years, and he also had 146 tackles, four sacks and three interceptions last year. Dawson had six sacks and four interceptions last year. Thompson is a dynamic athlete who also played running back and safety in college. I’ve heard all three compared to Tampa Bay’s Lavonte David -- the exact linebacker I always reference when describing the Saints’ need.

I could just as easily see the Saints going for Mississippi State’s bigger, more physical Benardrick McKinney (6-4, 246), Clemson’s Stephone Anthony (6-3, 243) or Miami’s Denzel Perryman (5-11, 236) to play on the inside -- especially after they let Curtis Lofton go this offseason.

McKinney and Anthony each had exactly 6.5 sacks over the past two years. Perryman is a productive inside linebacker despite his smaller stature -- reminiscent of another former Miami product, Jonathan Vilma.

You don’t ever want to get forced into chasing a need in the draft (for instance, I snagged defensive lineman Malcom Brown at No. 31 when we did our ESPN NFL Nation mock draft on Monday because the value was too great to ignore). But the Saints should make it a priority to wind up with one of these six guys by the end of Day 2.

Previous entries:

No. 14 Fullback

No. 13 Specialists

No. 12 Running back

No. 11 Safety

No. 10 Quarterback

No. 9 Nose tackle

No. 8 Offensive tackle

No. 7 Tight end

No. 6 Defensive end

No. 5 Guard/center

No. 4 Cornerback

No. 3 Wide receiver

No. 2 Edge rusher