Between now and the NFL Draft, we will run a series of articles analyzing each team’s needs using stats provided by ProFootballFocus.com
Unfortunately for the Saints, they could use not one, but two, new starting outside linebackers. The deficiencies of starters Scott Shanle (weak-side) and Scott Fujita (strong-side) were masked by the stellar play of the Saints defense line, but both are below-average NFL starters.
The first issue the Saints need to address at linebacker is their coverage. Due to the nature of their 4-3 defense, weak-side linebacker Scott Shanle is the one primarily dropping into zone coverage or manning up against tight ends. Unfortunately for the Saints, there are few linebackers in the league who more more ill-suited for this role than Shanle.
Given the fact that they’re typically covering much shorter routes, linebackers allow a fairly high percentage of catches when they drop into coverage. Shanle’s numbers, however, are well above average. Among linebackers who were targeted at least 20 times, Shanle’s 82.2 catch percentage allowed ranked as the 6th highest in the league. In a division which features Tony Gonzalez and Kellen Winslow, he is a major liability.
As for the Saints pass rush, it doesn’t get much better. Among their linebackers, Fujita is the one relied upon most in this area. Fujita was on the field for 309 pass plays in 2009 (playoffs included) and was used as a pass rusher roughly half the time (153 plays).
Of those 153 plays, Fujita recorded just one sack. He did, however, hit the quarterback seven times and record a nine pressures. In total, that’s 17 impact plays out of 153 pass rush situations – a rate of 11.1 percent. Among the 51 linebackers with at least 100 pass rush attempts, Fujita’s 11.1 “impact percentage” ranked right in the middle of the pack at 26th.
While Fujita, who is an unrestricted free agent, was the Saints primary pass rusher at linebacker in terms of percentage of plays, Shanle was actually used more often. Shanle rushed the quarterback 173 times out of the 690 pass plays in which he was on the field. In those 173 plays Shanle recorded zero sacks, zero hits and just eight pressures – that’s an astoundingly low 4.6 “impact percentage” which ranked him dead last among linebackers with 100 attempts.
Its a wonder the Saints even made the playoffs with a performance from their outside linebackers such as this. In the tables provided, Shanle and Jarret Johnson (Ravens) are the only ones from playoff teams.
Its widely assumed that the Saints will target a linebacker with the 32nd pick in the 1st round. Missouri’s Sean Weatherspoon would be the ideal fit for their 4-3 defense. Penn State’s Navorro Bowman is another option.
Both Bowman and Weatherspoon would be good fits at weak-side linebacker as a replacement for Shanle. However, if Scott Fujita does not re-sign, the strong-side position could actually be the greater need. Journeyman Troy Evans is Fujita’s backup and is not suited for a starting role.
Obviously the Saints have proven they can win with a below-average corps of linebackers. But if they’re going to repeat, they would be well served to upgrade the unit.