Depleted linebacker corps takes another heavy hit
When the New Orleans Saints finalize their 53-man roster, Curtis Lofton may be the only linebacker left who was originally projected to start in the team’s new 3-4 defense and is healthy enough to play.
The Saints lost starting outside linebacker Will Smith for the season to a knee injury he suffered against the Houston Texans on Sunday, a source confirmed to The Advocate on Monday.
Pro Football Talk, citing an anonymous league source, broke the story. Later Monday, ESPN’s Ed Werder reported he got a text from Smith saying the player had torn an anterior cruciate ligament and will undergo a surgery performed by renowned orthopedist Dr. James Andrews.
Also late Monday, there was a report from the San Jose Mercury News that the Saints made a trade to acquire outside linebacker Parys Haralson from the San Francisco 49ers. The report cited multiple team sources but didn’t have details on what the Saints gave up for Haralson.
The Saints didn’t comment on the news about the trade or Smith, stories that surfaced after a season-ending ACL tear in June to projected starting outside linebacker Victor Butler, as well as an arthroscopic knee surgery earlier in August to yet another starter, inside linebacker Jonathan Vilma.
Vilma is not expected to return until at least the start of the regular season. Lofton, an inside linebacker, also missed some practice with an unspecified injury and missed a preseason game against the Oakland Raiders, but he returned to face the Texans.
Even worse for the Saints is the fact that the health of linebackers lower on the depth chart hasn’t been much better.
Outside linebackers Junior Galette and Martez Wilson both sat out the Texans game with a leg problem and elbow injury, respectively. Though Wilson had been practicing with the team before the game, Galette has been out since leaving a session early on Aug. 7.
In the absence of Galette and Wilson for preseason games, the Saints have been starting Jay Richardson on the outside opposite Smith. Aside from Wilson, players on the roster who might fill the vacancy left by Smith in the short term include rookie Rufus Johnson, a sixth-round pick; undrafted rookie Eric Martin; and Baraka Atkins, who has three seasons of NFL experience but has not made a team since 2009.
It seemed likely that the Saints would mine the waiver wire or make a trade for possible additions to the linebacking corps.
Smith left in the second quarter of Sunday’s game after being hurt on a play in which Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan sacked quarterback Matt Schaub. Smith was entangled with other players, was twisted to the ground and was taken to the locker room after being examined on the sideline.
In his post-game press conference, Saints coach Sean Payton said he had no update on the severity of the injury.
Smith was the Saints’ first-round pick in 2004. He’s missed just five games for New Orleans, two of which involved his testing positive in 2011 for the banned weight loss supplement StarCaps.
In his 10 years with the Saints, the one-time Pro Bowler has recovered seven fumbles and recorded 67.5 sacks, 13 of which came in 2009, when New Orleans won Super Bowl XLIV.
Smith restructured his contract in the offseason, helping the Saints get under the $123 million salary cap. He switched from defensive end to linebacker as the Saints installed new coordinator Rob Ryan’s scheme.
Haralson was selected out of Tennessee by the 49ers in the sixth round of the 2006 draft. He had a career-high eight sacks in 2008 but had just 11 total in 2009, 2010 and 2011.
He did not play last season after he tore a triceps tendon in an exhibition game. Coach Jim Harbaugh replaced Haralson at right outside linebacker with Aldon Smith, who set a franchise record with 191/2 sacks.
Aside from Will Smith and Butler at outside linebacker, at defensive end, the Saints have also lost likely starter Kenyon Coleman for the season to a torn pectoral muscle he suffered Aug. 6.
The season-ending injuries haven’t affected only the Saints’ defense. No. 3 wide receiver candidate Joe Morgan probably won’t play this year because he tore a meniscus and partially tore an ACL at the intrasquad scrimmage on Aug. 3.
New Orleans’ last preseason game is on the road against the Miami Dolphins on Thursday. Starters are not expected to play.