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Tuesday, February 4, 2014
Ranking Saints needs: No. 2 Linebacker

By Mike Triplett

A position-by-position look at where the New Orleans Saints stand heading into the 2014 offseason -- ranked from 1-12 in order of the team's need for upgrades or replacements.

Current depth chart:

Lofton
Curtis Lofton. Age 27, signed through 2016. 2014 salary and bonuses: $3.2 million. 2014 salary-cap number: $5.2 million.

David Hawthorne. Age 28, signed through 2016. 2014 salary and bonuses: $2 million. 2014 salary-cap number: $3.51 million.

Parys Haralson. Age 30, unrestricted free agent.

Jonathan Vilma. Age 31, unrestricted free agent.

Ramon Humber. Age 26, unrestricted free agent.

Will Herring. Age 30, unrestricted free agent.

Kevin Reddick. Age 24, scheduled to become restricted free agent in 2016. 2014 salary and bonuses: $495,000. 2014 salary-cap number: $496,666.

Analysis:

As I wrote earlier, I broke down the Saints' front seven into three categories (interior linemen, edge rushers and linebackers) since they run a hybrid between a 4-3 and a 3-4. So this is essentially the group of true linebackers who play in space, rather than the pass-rushing linebackers such as Junior Galette.

This may not seem like one of the Saints' most glaring needs since Lofton and Hawthorne played so well this past season. But look how thin the list gets behind those two veterans. I think it would be especially helpful for the Saints to look at this group in the draft since they need to inject youth and athleticism -- someone who could rotate into the mix right away and develop into a future starter.

Just imagine how much more potent this defense would be with an outside linebacker like Tampa Bay's Lavonte David or Carolina's Thomas Davis roaming the flats. And I ranked this list even before Seattle outside linebacker Malcolm Smith was named Super Bowl MVP, but it seems especially fitting now.

As for the guys who are under contract, I think the Saints are set with their two starting inside linebackers, Lofton and Hawthorne. Lofton played especially well down the stretch this past season, and he has been a great addition as an every-down middle linebacker, captain and leader of the defense. What a smooth transition he has made since arriving as a free agent in 2012. Hawthorne, on the other hand, struggled when he first arrived in 2012, mostly because of injuries. But he bounced back this past year and played at a high level. Hawthorne's contract could become an issue in 2015, but for now he comes at a good rate.

Reddick will also be back, and I could see him playing a more prominent role after he earned playing time as an undrafted rookie in 2013. He played a lot on special teams and joined the defense in jumbo packages. He could have a future as an inside linebacker if he continues to deliver on his potential.

The two biggest question marks among the unrestricted free agents are Vilma and Haralson. I know the popular opinion is that Vilma will be gone after he missed almost all of last season with a knee injury, and he'll be 32 in the spring. However, if he wants to try and play this summer, the Saints would be the team most likely to give him that opportunity since he's been such a valued member of the organization. Haralson is also coming off of a season-ending pectoral injury, but I could also see him back at a minimal contract after he seemed like such a good veteran fit in a part-time role last year.

Humber and Herring are two of the Saints' most valued special teamers, so they could both be back. Humber showed promise as a backup middle linebacker in the summer, as well, so his versatility is valuable.