New Orleans Saints outside linebackers Martez Wilson, Junior Galette and Parys Haralson know people think their position group is one of the glaring question marks on their team this year.
Pardon them if they disagree.
Six days away from hosting the regular season opener against the reigning division champion Atlanta Falcons, Wilson, Galette and Haralson on Monday all insisted they were well capable of splitting up the work at outside linebacker in their team’s 3-4 defense if that’s what their coaches need.
“We’re not rookies. It’s not like this is ... our first rodeo,” said Wilson, the Saints’ third-round pick in 2011. “We’re ready for Sunday with no hesitation. We’re excited. Even having three outside linebackers, that just gives us a better rotation, more playing time.”
At the same time, the Saints hinted they’re prepared to deploy some alignments that deviate from a strict 3-4 scheme, such as ones that include four defensive linemen and more defensive backs than usual.
Wilson, Galette and Haralson are the only outside linebackers listed on the 53-man roster the Saints unveiled Saturday, a scenario coach Sean Payton on Monday acknowledged was “less than normal” for a team adopting a 3-4 defense.
Without elaborating, Payton said “there will be movement” at the bottom of the Saints’ roster, possibly implying that players on the fringe of the team’s ranks may be cut to swell the numbers at outside linebacker.
Wilson and Galette started the preseason expecting to compete for playing time at outside linebacker with Victor Butler and Will Smith, but Butler tore an anterior cruciate ligament in June, and Smith did the same in the team’s third exhibition in August. Smith is out for the year; the same could be true for Butler, on the physically unable to perform list for now.
Wilson (elbow) and Galette (leg) missed all of the preseason games, and the Saints made a trade with the San Francisco 49ers for Haralson a day after losing Smith. Haralson played in a 3-4 scheme with the 49ers but sat out the Saints’ fourth and final exhibition.
Some questioned whether it made sense for the Saints to enter the season with a trio of outside linebackers who had not played a snap for the Saints in the preseason. But Monday, the trio brushed off such doubts.
“I played three preseason games with San Francisco (this year),” said Haralson, who was selected by the 49ers in the fifth round of the 2006 draft and had 21.5 sacks in his time there. “They didn’t come get me from a bar somewhere. I was ... playing football and practicing.”
Haralson’s path to New Orleans began when he engaged with Denver Broncos tight end Joel Dreessen on a running play during an exhibition in 2012. Haralson tore a triceps tendon and missed the season, and he became expendable when 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith subsequently set a franchise record with 191/2 sacks.
Haralson said it was “nice to come to a team where you feel like you’re wanted.”
“(The Saints) have got some young guys that are very talented that I understand are still learning the 3-4,” Haralson said. He added that he looked forward to doing whatever he could to help out Galette and Wilson, who previously played defensive end for New Orleans, transition to linebacker.
“It’s a process that I went through,” said Haralson, who played defensive end at college in Tennessee.
Meanwhile, Galette disputed the notion that the Saints were relying on him at outside linebacker because of the injuries to Butler and Smith. “I feel like I was going to be where I’m at regardless of who’s hurt or not,” said Galette, who’s played 32 regular-season games for the Saints since 2010 and has 9.5 sacks. “I have that confidence in myself that no one was going to beat me out.”
Nonetheless, Galette allowed that it would be no surprise for defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to call up formations that don’t feature three defensive lineman and four linebackers “to eliminate that question mark of the three outside linebackers.”
“We’re more than just a 3-4 front,” Galette said. “Rob does a lot of things to mix things up ... and put guys in position to make plays.”
Payton wouldn’t say whether Wilson and Galette would take the field Sunday. But teammate and inside linebacker Curtis Lofton said they’re both “healthy now and good to go.”
Wilson, with four career sacks, said it doesn’t make him nervous that his and Galette’s first game action this season could come on Week 1 against Atlanta, who many consider the favorite this year to become the first team in the NFC South to win back-to-back division pennants.
“We live under pressure everyday,” Wilson said. “I was ready to play as much as possible. I was ready to start if possible.”