Saints Upgraded Line-Backing Corp Revives ‘Dome Patrol’

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After two decades of mundane play and widespread disappointment, the New Orleans Saints front office took a proactive approach to solving the team’s biggest weakness.

After Jim Haslett’s first season with the Saints in 2000, only Jonathan Vilma has represented the team as a Pro Bowl linebacker. Now, with Vilma facing a suspension for the upcoming season, the seemed to be more questions then answers for the middle of the defense. Add this to the other BountyGate penalties and the lack of a long-term contract for Drew Brees and it seemed Saints fans would have little to cheer about this offseason.

Thank God Mickey Loomis had other plans. Along with resigning and replacing players on the offensive side of the ball, the organization has managed to pull together the most impressive linebacker group since Sam Mills, Rickey Jackson and company protected the Dome in the late 80’s and early 90’s.

Start with the often impressive, seldom-appreciated Chris Chamberlain of the St. Louis Rams. He made a name for himself as a special teams ace and slowly worked his way inter the starting lineup over the last two seasons, even though he was never named a started out of training camp. That kind of determination mixed with the results he had on the field will prove crucial to a weak Saints rotation. In just 13 starts, he tallied 81 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 forced fumble, and one interception, a total package which proves more impressive than all of the starters last seasons.

Next, bring in the heart and sole of the Falcons defense. Curtis Lofton, drafted to be Matt Ryan’s counterpart in 2008, has led the division rivals defense in tackles for the last 3 seasons, totaling 147 in 2011 (just one shy of the combined total of Scott Shanle and Jo-Lonn Dunbar). Along with making the team stronger and the rival weaker, Lofton has said he doesn’t care which position he plays. He is a MLB in nature, but his winning attitude has opened the possibility of playing either outside LB positions. Oh, and the fact that he snubbed the Tampa Bay Bucs to sign with the Saints is a perfect icing on top.

Now add in the other top linebacker on the market in David Hawthorne. With a struggling Seattle defense, he managed to collect 115 tackles and 3 interceptions, just one shy of the Saints team leader in 2011. Hawthorne gives the Saints another option at MLB in Vilma’s absence, but is also willing to play outside if needed. Early in free agency it was thought the Saints would be choosing between Vilma, Lofton, or Hawthorne. Now it is looking like they could all but standing shoulder to shoulder to protect the Dome.

To take a look at our returning linebackers you have to start with the veterans Vilma and Shanle. Both have been a part of the highest success the franchise has every seen. They have also seen a lot of hits, tackles, and injuries in their careers. Because of possible suspensions, I won’t dwell on them in this articles, but when they are on they are valuable pieces. Hopefully they’ll be key parts to the defense in 2012. If not, the team may still be able to move forward without them without missing a beat.

My favorite and most exciting player for the Saints this year has got to be Martez Wilson. Because of injuries, he slipped to the Saints in the 3rd round. Now that he is up to full speed, I imagine he will be THE player to watch this year. He has the size of DeMarcus Ware, the speed of any top defensive end, and the strength to go along with it. Steve Spagnuolo is going to turn him into the next great pass rusher. I will admit, I would be more excited to see him play DE over OLB but regardless he will be a monster.

It will take some time for the entire crew to gel.  Spags will have his hands full teaching the defense his system while dealing with the waterfall of offseason issues. The good news in our linebacking corps will be improved. It will protect the Dome. They may not be voted the #1 linebacking corps in history like our last Dome Patrol, but we will have the stops needed to get further into the post season then the last two years.

(Side note: I am still hoping we get another picture of these players in Saints themed military uniforms in front of the Dome. WHO DAT!)

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