Depth at LB a strength for Saints

Published 12:01 am Thursday, August 11, 2011

METAIRIE, La. (AP) — Jonathan Casillas was a week away from winning a starting linebacker spot for the Saints last season when a foot injury in the final preseason game put him out for the year.

Casillas is back, healthy and working vigorously through training camp, but senses that the rotation at linebacker is more uncertain than it was a year ago because of moves the Saints made to build depth in that area.

“It’s a good group, man,” Casillas said after practice Wednesday night. “Every position has a solid backup and even a solid backup after the backup. I think that’s pretty rare, even in the NFL with the experience and talent in the league.

Email newsletter signup

“They’re working us in, kind of interchanging parts a little bit, trying to figure out that chemistry. I think we’re trying to play with the pieces a little bit to get the best guys out there for each individual package we have.”

It appears the only linebacker job that is secure is that of defensive captain Jonathan Vilma in the middle. He has hardly missed a snap the past three seasons.

There’s less certainty at both outside spots, as well as at the second middle linebacker spot when the Saints switch from their regular 4-3 alignment to the 3-4 that defensive coordinator Gregg Williams likes to use as a change of pace.

In free agency, the Saints brought back Scott Shanle, who has started at weak side linebacker the past five seasons. But Shanle could lose that job to Casillas, who was the front-runner at that spot during the 2010 preseason before his injury.

The Saints had flirted with moving Shanle to the strong side during Casillas’ emergence last summer, but that doesn’t appear to be in the plans this season.

Danny Clark and Jo-Lonn Dunbar shared strong side snaps in 2010, but the Saints decided on Wednesday to cut Clark, a 12-year veteran, which for the time being narrows competition between free-agent acquisitions Will Herring and Clint Ingram.

“We have more depth, we have experience and we have some young guys,” head coach Sean Payton said. “When I talk about experience, you’re looking at Will Herring … I consider Casillas and obviously Shanle to be experienced players. Clint Ingram is healthy and a much different player than he was a year ago. Plus, we have the younger guys that are competing in there. So it gives us some versatility.”