Once a limitation, Saints can now count on linebackers

In the weeks leading up to the kickoff the 2008 NFL Season, I’ll take a look at position groups that could potentially lift teams to new heights, or bury them and their postseason hopes. Today I take a look at how the New Orleans Saints can now consider their linebacker corps a strength.

It would be a mistake to say that the New Orleans Saints’ linebacker corps has been a weakness over the past two years. A “limitation” might be a more appropriate description.

The trio of Scott Shanle, Scott Fujita and Mark Simoneau wasn’t the flashiest linebacker corps in the league, but they certainly got the job done in 2006 when the Saints fell one win shy of reaching the Super Bowl. And given his 95 tackles, three sacks and two forced fumbles from a year ago, Fujita is arguably one of the more underrated outside linebackers in the league.

Still, the Saints have lacked bulk and overall athleticism in their linebacker corps, so this past offseason they parted with a 2008 fourth round pick and a 2009 conditional pick to acquire former Jets’ MLB Jonathan Vilma. They also retained Simoneau to help on special teams and provide depth behind all three linebacker positions.

Although he underwent season-ending surgery on his right knee last year, Vilma was out of place in Eric Mangini’s 3-4 defensive scheme in New York. Vilma will return to a 4-3 front, where he once amassed 173 total tackles and a sack as the Jets’ middle linebacker in 2005. If he stays healthy, Vilma might turn out to be the best bargain of the 2008 offseason.

Fujita and Shanle will likely be the opening day starters at outside linebacker and with the addition of Vilma, they now have a strong, experienced and athletic trio in the middle of their defense. If first round pick Sedrick Ellis and veteran Brian Young can keep defenders off Vilma, he’ll be a force against the run and the Saints will have one of the better front sevens in the NFC. Not too mention Fujita, Ellis, Will Smith and Charles Grant (assuming the league doesn’t suspend him for legal issues) can all provide a heavy pass rush.

Questions will remain about Vilma’s health until he proves otherwise and the secondary will need Randall Gay (free agent/Patriots) to step up to complement Mike McKenzie in coverage, but there’s no doubt the Saints’ defense has been vastly upgraded. And that’s a scary thought for the NFC considering the real strength for New Orleans is its dangerous offense.

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