The good news: The New Orleans Saints loaded up with some new options at outside linebacker this offseason – perhaps anticipating all along that they would part ways with tempestuous starter Junior Galette at some point.
The bad news: All of those options come with question marks.
Newly-signed veteran Anthony Spencer will get the first crack. Spencer spent most of the summer with the Saints’ starting unit while Galette was sidelined with a pectoral injury. Spencer is a dependable veteran who was once among the NFL’s elite pass rushers with the Dallas Cowboys. He made the Pro Bowl when playing for current Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan in 2012. However, Spencer is 31 now and he hasn’t been the same since suffering a major knee injury in 2013.
Second-round draft pick Hau’oli Kikaha will also figure into the mix. At Washington, Kikaha led all players in college football last year with 19 sacks. And his athleticism has been apparent this summer. However, he’s still a rookie and admittedly needs to learn how to drop back in coverage. His impact could come in a rotational pass-rush role.
Fifth-round draft pick Davis Tull is also a rookie, and he also is more of a pass-rush specialist at this point. However, Tull has been sidelined all summer by labrum surgery, though he’s expected to begin practicing during training camp.
Returning veteran Parys Haralson should continue rotating into the mix as a run-defense specialist, though he lined up as a 3-4 end during parts of OTAs and minicamp.
Second-year pro Kasim Edebali can’t be forgotten after he impressed last year in a limited backup role as an undrafted rookie. Fellow second-year pro Ronald Powell could also work his way into the rotation after barely playing last year, now that he’s more comfortable in the Saints’ system.
There still might not be enough room for all of these guys at such a crowded position, even after Galette’s release. But they all just moved up one notch in the pecking order.
Here’s a closer look at the roster battles at linebacker as I continue my position-by-position breakdown of the Saints’ roster leading up to the start of training camp. Players report to The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia on July 29, with the first practice July 30.
53-man roster projection: OLB Anthony Spencer, OLB Hau’oli Kikaha, OLB Parys Haralson, OLB Kasim Edebali, OLB Davis Tull, ILB David Hawthorne, ILB Stephone Anthony, ILB Dannell Ellerbe, ILB Ramon Humber
Analysis: My initial 53-man roster projection, which was published Thursday, was barely 24 hours old when I already got one wrong (Galette).
But my projection wasn’t completely off-base. I kept a total of six outside linebackers in part because I knew it was possible Galette might be released, suspended or placed on an injury list.
So now I have a more reasonable total of five OLBs and nine linebackers overall on my projected roster – which still might be one too many.
I think at least one veteran linebacker (Haralson, Humber, Ellerbe, Hawthorne) could be in jeopardy, as the position is so overcrowded. Hawthorne and Ellerbe both received some guaranteed money in their contracts, but they still might need to lock down their starting jobs to ensure their roster safety because they aren’t big special-teams assets.
Special teams will be big for a lot of these young guys, such as Edebali, Tull and Powell. Even though I left Powell off my roster, he’s definitely in the mix – especially if he outshines those other guys in the kicking game.
Instead of promoting Powell to replace Galette, though, I would actually look to another position to fill the new vacancy. I'd add either Stanley Jean-Baptiste as a sixth cornerback or Josh Morgan as a sixth receiver.