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Tough choices should yield dividends for reshaped Saints defense

Saints rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro has already shown signs that he will help upgrade the rebuilding Saints defense (Photo: Parker Waters).Saints rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro has already shown signs that he will help upgrade the rebuilding Saints defense (Photo: Parker Waters).

The thin linebacking corps of the New Orleans Saints has taken a pair of body blows this spring and summer.

Linebacker Victor Butler, the free agent signee from Dallas, suffered a torn ACL in June after a collision with running back Mark Ingram.

On Monday, linebacker Martez Wilson suffered what head coach Sean Payton calls a dislocated left elbow. Wilson is expected to be lost for two-to-four weeks.

In the wake of the injury to Wilson, the linebacking situation has received a lot of media attention. One thing is for certain. The moves by the Saints to have Jonathan Vilma and Will Smith agree to salary reductions and stay with the club are already paying dividends. The two veterans can still play at a relatively high level.

Is the signing of defensive end-turned-outside linebacker Junior Gallette to a three-year contract in the offseason any equally good decision?

Gallette, an undrafted free agent, had five sacks last season in only 12 games played. By comparison, Butler had three sacks in 16 games with Dallas. Gallette brings something to the table needed in New Orleans.

Even with an early run of injuries, the Saints defense has already improved from the end of last season.

First round pick Kenny Vaccaro has been stellar in the early days of camp. He covers a lot of ground, and looks like the hardest hitting Saints safety since Sammy Knight.

Knight was the consumate ballhawk. In 6 seasons with the Saints, he intercepted 28 passes.

But there's one thing Vaccaro can do that Knight could not. He can line up and cover man-to-man on inside slot receivers.

Cornerback Keenan Lewis, who prepped at O. Perry Walker, is already a fixture. Lewis started all 16 games for Pittsburgh last season.

Defensive end Cameron Jordan could be ready for a big season in year number three. Jordan, a first round pick in 2011, had eight sacks, three forced fumbles and a pair of fumble recoveries last season.

When the Saints signed Lewis and then drafted Vaccaro, Payton knew that the 2013 season was going to be a mix and match in the front seven. But he has always been a stickler for shoring up his pass defense.

In 2008, the Saints gave up too many big pass plays in the fourth quarter. One year later, the Saints added Darren Sharper, Malcolm Jenkins and Jabari Greer. A Super Bowl title followed.

The defensive makeover would get a huge boost if end Akiem Hicks lived up to his sizeable potential. If Hicks and Jordan can produce big seasons, the Saints front seven can be respectable.

New coordinator Rob Ryan will employ blitzers at all angles to attempt to generate a pass rush. With Lewis and Vaccaro on the back end, the ability of the Saints to cover has been greatly enhanced.

Payton knew the hand he was dealt. With multiple needs and a tight salary cap situations, he had to make choices and did. He couldn't afford free agent left tackle Jermon Bushrod AND Keenan Lewis. He targeted Vaccaro in the draft, and snagged him with pick 15.

The Saints need impact players on defense. Payton knows that is not a one-year fix, but his decisions are likely to result in enough upgrades for improvement this season.


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