The start of free agency is just a few days away, and it is time to take a look at the linebackers.
Linebacker has been a position of weakness for the Saints for over a decade. The days of the Dome Patrol are long gone.
For those of you who are too young or just unfamiliar with the Dome Patrol, it was a linebacker unit that consisted of Rickey Jackson, Pat Swilling, Sam Mills, and Vaughn Johnson. NFL Network considers it the greatest linebacker corps of all time.
A Look Back at 2008
The Saints made a step to improve their current linebacker corps by trading for MLB Jonathan Vilma. Vilma's impact was felt immediately. He played every defensive snap and led the team in tackles by a wide margin.
Strong-side linebacker Scott Shanle had a solid but not spectacular 2008. He played in and started all 16 games, recorded 87 tackles and two sacks, and defended five passes.
Weak-side linebacker Scott Fujita's production slipped last season. He had his lowest tackle total as a Saint and did not record a sack.
One reason Vilma played every single defensive snap was because he had to.
There is very little depth at linebacker for the Saints. Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Marvin Mitchell, and Troy Evans mainly contributed on special teams. Of that group, the rookie Dunbar flashed the most potential. In his first career start, he recorded six tackles and defended two passes against the Redskins.
A Look Ahead to 2009
The Saints are not expected to re-sign Jonathan Vilma before free agency starts. If they do, they must part with their first-round draft pick. Re-signing Vilma, though, will be the Saints' number one priority.
I expect the Saints, through the draft or free agency, to improve the outside linebacker position. The Saints need to upgrade the athleticism and playmaking ability of their front seven. As a defense, the Saints only recorded 10 forced fumbles and 28 sacks.
Linebacker Dan Morgan, who took 2008 off to make sure he took the proper precautions to recover from concussions, has joined the Saints for 2009. Primarily an inside linebacker, Morgan give the Saints depth at all three linebacker positions.
I don't think the Saints will rely heavily on Morgan because of the injury issues he has had to deal with throughout his career.
Potential Free Agents
Baltimore's Ray Lewis and Bart Scott are available on the market and are widely considered the best free agents at their positions, but they will be too expensive for the Saints.
Another highly regarded free agent is strong-side linebacker Keith Brooking. Brooking has started 128 consecutive games and has recorded over 100 tackles in each of the past eight seasons. He, too, will likely be too expensive for the Saints to chase after.
I expect the Saints to seek a young outside linebacker whom they can get for three or four years at $3-4 million per year.
Potential Draft Picks
There is a lot of depth at outside linebacker in the draft with Aaron Curry, Brian Cushing, and Clay Matthews all expected to be taken in the first round.
If the Saints choose to wait until the second day to select a linebacker, they should be able to choose from Oklahoma's Nic Harris, Ohio State's Marcus Freeman, or LSU's Darry Beckwith among others.
The Saints must improve their playmaking ability along their entire front seven. All successful defenses (Pittsburgh, Dallas, New England, Carolina, Baltimore, and Miami, to name a few) have game-changers at linebacker.
The Saints added one game-changer in 2008 with Jonathan Vilma and should make it a priority to add another one in 2009.