David Hawthorne vying to keep starting with Jonathan Vilma’s return

David Hawthorne has made plays all season for the Saints, long before he smacked Buffalo quarterback Thad Lewis on Sunday afternoon’s first play from scrimmage.

Jonathan Vilma has made even more plays during his longer Saints tenure. It’s just been awhile. Now that Vilma’s once-aching knee has recovered from its latest procedure, healthy enough to practice, he’s aiming to return to the field for the first time this fall.

Now, pick your starting inside linebacker.

It’s a decision the Saints (6-1) are forced to make as early as this week as they prepare for Sunday’s game at the New York Jets (4-4).

To an extent, Hawthorne, a sixth-year pro who can play inside or outside at linebacker, and Vilma, whose presnap IQ once defied Peyton Manning in Super Bowl XLIV, will make the decision themselves — along with backup Ramon Humber — based on their friendly competition in practice and on gamedays, where Vilma is sure to be a part of the defensive game plan, starter or not.

“Coaches said I looked good running around,” Vilma told The Advocate shortly after his return to practice.

Yet the decision to start one talented player over another can be as much feel and gut reaction as it is based on film study and raw statistics. Even based on how their strengths and weaknesses gel with the teammate next to them. So do you stick with the guy who’s helped the defense enjoy a 12th-overall ranking entering Sunday’s game at MetLife Stadium, or take a chance on another guy who has earned enough brownie points for past tackles and locker room leadership that it makes sense to move him back into his former starting role?

It makes for awkward locker room fodder, in a place where just about any conversation is par for the course.

Hawthorne’s 2012 season, his first with the Saints after four years in Seattle, started slow with a hamstring injury. By the time he recovered, he said it was too late for him to feel comfortable on the field.

Not this season.

Hawthorne’s 38 tackles rank second only to fellow inside linebacker Curtis Lofton. Hawthorne, who earned the nickname, “Heater,” also has two sacks, the latest on Sunday against the Bills.

“Dave, he just needed to be healthy,” Lofton said. “Last year, he had a lot of injuries that were holding him back. Whenever he’s healthy, he’s a baller.”

Defensive end Cameron Jordan agreed.

“Heater (Hawthorne) is definitely a guy to be reckoned with,” Jordan said. “Sure, he’s five (feet tall — actually 6-foot-0). ... We’ll just leave it at that. ... But he’s strong and effective. He knows football, and he’s natural at getting to the ball.”

Vilma’s health has been an issue for the past two seasons. After his Bountygate suspension was temporarily halted last fall then later overturned, he played in 11 games, starting 10. Vilma finished with 37 tackles, one sack and an interception. He was forced to have arthroscopic surgery during the 2013 preseason — at least his second known procedure in two seasons — but he has said that he’s been “pleasantly surprised” with how his knee has responded.

Good enough to return to the active roster last week from short-term injured reserve and return to practice.

Good enough to start?