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Saints need spark at OLB, starting with healthy Dannell Ellerbe

A position-by-position look at where the New Orleans Saints stand heading into the 2016 offseason -- counting down from No. 13 to No. 1 in order of need for upgrades or replacements. At No. 2 is outside linebacker.

Current depth chart:

Dannell Ellerbe. Age 30, signed through 2017. 2016 salary and bonuses: $2.5 million. 2016 salary-cap number: $3.2 million.

Hau'oli Kikaha. Age 23, signed through 2018. 2016 salary and bonuses: $674,378. 2016 salary-cap number: $1.2 million.

Kasim Edebali. Age 26, scheduled to become restricted free agent in 2017. 2016 salary and bonuses: $600,000. 2016 salary-cap number: $602,000.

James Anderson. Age 32, unrestricted free agent.

Davis Tull. Age 24, signed through 2018. 2016 salary and bonuses: $450,000. 2016 salary-cap number: $505,433.

Erik Harris. Age 25, scheduled to become restricted free agent in 2019. 2016 salary $450,000. 2016 salary-cap number estimated at $450,000

Analysis:

The Saints could use badly more athleticism at outside linebacker, especially in pass coverage.

I sound like a broken record saying that, since New Orleans has been lacking dynamic playmakers at outside linebacker throughout the entire Sean Payton era. Year after year, I keep mentioning how nice it would be for the Saints to find their own version of fellow NFC South studs Lavonte David and Thomas Davis, who can drop back in coverage and chase down runners in the open field.

That was especially true last year, when the Saints’ banged-up linebacking corps struggled in pass coverage. That was one of the reasons why New Orleans set NFL records for most touchdown passes allowed and highest opponents’ passer rating.

Kikaha, Edebali and Tull are promising young athletes, but all are primarily suited to rush the passer rather than work the open field.

Ellerbe could be a part of the solution. He showed promise as a versatile playmaker at weakside linebacker last year, but injuries limited him to just six games. A fully healthy offseason should do Ellerbe good after he was still recovering from a major hip injury this time last year.

Even with a healthy Ellerbe, the Saints need to get younger at that weakside position, so it should be a high priority in the draft. UCLA’s Myles Jack could be a perfect fit, but he might not last until the 12th pick. Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith would be the ideal type of player, but medical concerns could hurt his draft stock. Ohio State’s Darron Lee, USC’s Su'a Cravens and LSU’s Deion Jones are among other possibilities in the early rounds.

This could also be an area where the Saints decide to pony up in free agency despite their limited funds. They have already shown interest in former Los Angeles Rams middle linebacker James Laurinaitis, though it's unclear if either Laurinaitis or current middle linebacker Stephone Anthony could move to the outside in New Orleans' defense.

The Denver Broncos' Danny Trevathan is a young up-and-comer with that ability to defend the run and pass. And the Seattle Seahawks’ Bruce Irvin is a talented pass-rusher who could intrigue the Saints since they would love to model Seattle’s defense. But both will probably be too pricey.

Veterans Derrick Johnson and DeMeco Ryans and younger guys like Jerrell Freeman, Mark Barron, Zach Brown and Tahir Whitehead are among other possibilities.

Previous rankings:

No. 13: Running back

No. 12: Quarterback

No. 11: Offensive tackle

No. 10: Specialists

No. 9: Inside linebacker

No. 8: Wide receiver

No. 7: Safety

No. 6: Tight end

No. 5: Cornerback

No. 4: Guard/center

No. 3: Defensive tackle