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NFL Team Report - New Orleans Saints - INSIDE SLANT
The New Orleans Saints are limping to the end of the exhibition season with some major problems at the linebacker position.
What appeared to be a strength for the team in their new 3-4 scheme when their veteran minicamp ended in June is now a major source of concern following injuries to their six top linebackers in a 2 1/2-month span.
The latest to go down is former defensive end Will Smith, who was the starting Jack linebacker in Rob Ryan's new-look defense.
Smith left Sunday's exhibition game with the Houston Texans after he got tangled up with several players and was twisted to the ground while defensive end Cameron Jordan sacked Matt Schaub.
Pro Football Talk first reported Monday that Smith, a 10-year veteran and the longest-tenured player on the team, will be out for the season with an unspecified knee injury.
Saints coach Sean Payton said he had no update on Smith after the game and there was no availability Monday for either coaches or players after the team returned late Sunday night following a 31-23 win against the Texans.
If Smith is lost for the season, it would be a big blow because the Jack linebacker is the pass-rush specialist in Ryan's 3-4. The Saints had already lost Victor Butler, their projected starter on the strong side, to a torn ACL in one of their final organized team activities in mid-June.
To compound the problem, former defensive end Junior Galette, who had been backing up Smith in off-season workouts, suffered a leg injury two days before the preseason opener and hasn't played or practiced since.
Also, third-year pro Martez Wilson dislocated his left elbow in late July and only recently returned to practice. When both Galette and Wilson are healthy, they would probably start at the outside linebacker spots.
Another possibility is Jay Richardson, who has started opposite Smith in the absence of Galette and Wilson. Richardson has not played in a regular-season game since 2010.
The Saints are also hurting at inside linebacker as Jonathan Vilma is out indefinitely after having his knee scoped on Aug. 15. The Saints have not given out any more information on him or a timeline for when they expect him to return.
NFL Team Report - New Orleans Saints - NOTES, QUOTES
--After getting a head start on trimming his roster a week ahead of the first mandatory reduction with nine transactions last Monday, Saints coach Sean Payton made another one at mid-week.
Payton cut his roster down to 81 players -- just six above the limit of 75 teams can have on Tuesday -- and just two days later released former St. Louis Rams and New York Jets tackle Jason Smith.
The release of Smith, the second pick of the 2009 draft by the Rams, was not a big shock considering he was demoted from the second team to the third-team offense less than a week into training camp.
Smith was signed in the spring when the Saints were trying to create competition at left tackle as they tried to replace two-time Pro Bowl pick Jermon Bushrod.
But Smith wasn't much of a threat to fourth-year pro Charles Brown and then was jumped on the depth chart by rookie Terron Armstead, a third-round draft pick.
--As Payton explained early on in training camp, the Saints really were taking no risk in bringing Smith in a for a look-see after he was cut loose by the Jets.
In March, Payton expressed concern about the position when he said the name plate on the coaching staff's depth chart at that position was "gray" -- meaning they were unsure of what Brown could give them.
But he only received a one-year contract at the minimum salary for a player going into his fifth season, so they had nothing to lose.
"It's not an exact science," Payton said when asked about high draft picks like Smith not panning out. "We like the opportunity for us to take him (Smith) here and take a peek at him and see how he is doing."
--The Saints' new 3-4 defense added two more sacks in Sunday's 31-23 win against the Houston Texans, giving it 13 in their three preseason victories.
Defensive ends Cameron Jordan and Glenn Foster each got to Texans quarterback Matt Schaub in the first half, to add to the 11 sacks the Saints got in earlier wins over Kansas City and Oakland.
Foster, an undrafted free agent from Illinois, now has a team-leading four sacks, while Jordan, the Saints' sack leader with eight in 2012, has two.
The Saints recorded just 30 sacks in 16 regular-season games last season when they gave up an NFL single-season record 7,042 total yards.
--Saints cornerback Patrick Robinson, who had arthroscopic knee surgery in mid-June, played for the first time in preseason and got some snaps with the first-team defense against the Texans.
Robinson, a starter for the first time in the base defense in 2012, will likely be a candidate to play in the nickel and dime behind starting corners Jabari Greer and Keenan Lewis.
--After defeating the Texans, the Saints are 3-0 in the preseason for the first time since 2009.
That season, the Saints lost their final exhibition game but went on to win their first 13 regular-season games en route to winning Super Bowl XLVII.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "You know, you're always thinking about time versus number of plays ... and one might come before the other. We came in with the plan that we were going to play a little less time around in the third game than we have in the past." -- Saints QB Drew Brees, on leaving Sunday's game with the Houston Texans after 1 1/2 quarters.
NFL Team Report - New Orleans Saints - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
BATTLE OF THE WEEK: Nick Toon vs. Kenny Stills for third wide receiver.
These two have been battling for this spot since speedy Joe Morgan was lost for the entire season in a scrimmage on Aug. 3. While neither has a reception in a regular-season game, both have gained a lot of confidence in the preseason and should get a lot of snaps regardless of who's third or fourth in the pecking order.
BIGGEST QUESTION TO BE ANSWERED: Who will the starting linebackers be Sept. 8. The Saints have lost Will Smith and Victor Butler for the season, so they'd love to have Martez Wilson and Junior Galette start on the outside against the Atlanta Falcons. The problem is both have missed the majority of training camp with injuries and neither has played in a preseason game. Wilson practiced last week after rehabbing a dislocated elbow, but Galette has missed three weeks with a knee problem. The Saints also don't know when inside 'backer Jonathan Vilma will return after having his knee scoped on Aug. 15.
--OLB Will Smith left Sunday's game with the Houston Texans with an unspecified knee injury and media reports Monday had him being sidelined for the entire season.
--ILB Jonathan Vilma had arthroscopic knee surgery on Aug. 15, but no timetable has been given for his return.
--OLB Junior Galette has been sidelined since Aug. 7 with a leg injury and his return is not known although the injury isn't believed to be serious.
--FB Jed Collins missed practice late last week with an undisclosed injury and did not play in Sunday's game with the Texans.
--OLB Martez Wilson missed the first three preseason games because of a dislocated left elbow, but has been back at practice for a week.
--WR Marques Colston has practiced sparingly during training camp because of a foot injury, but should be ready for the season opener.
FRANCHISE PLAYER: None.
TRANSITION PLAYER: None.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (not tendered offers)
--CB Elbert Mack (not tendered as UFA).
--T William Robinson (not tendered as UFA).
--LB Scott Shanle (not tendered as UFA).
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: None.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: None.
DRAFT CHOICES SIGNED (all picks signed)
--S Kenny Vaccaro (1/15): $9,424,703 all guaranteed/4 yrs, $5,234,328 SB.
--T Terron Armstead (3/75): $2,867,436/4 yrs, $617,436 SB.
--NT John Jenkins (3/82): $2,792,560/4 yrs, $567,560 SB.
--WR Kenny Stills (5/144); $2,354,452/4 yrs, $194,452 SB
--LB Rufus Johnson (6/183): $2,265,308/4 yrs, $105,308.
--S Rafael Bush: Potential ERFA; $555,000/1 yr.
--C Brian de la Puente: RFAa tendered at $2.023M with second-round pick as compensation; $2.023M/1 yr.
--LS Justin Drescher: Not tendered as RFA; 4 yrs, terms unknown.
--LB Junior Galette: Potential RFA; 3 yrs, terms unknown.
--TE Michael Higgins: Potential ERFA: $555,000/1 yr.
--LB Ramon Humber: UFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--LB Will Herring: FA, had been released by Saints; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--G Eric Olsen: Potential ERFA; $555,000/1 yr.
--WR Courtney Roby: UFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--DE Baraka Atkins: FA; terms unknown.
--LB Victor Butler: UFA Cowboys; 2 yrs, terms unknown.
--CB Chris Carr: Not tendered as UFA by Chargers; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--DE Kenyon Coleman: UFA Cowboys; terms unknown.
--LB Parys Haralson (trade 49ers).
--S Jim Leonhard: UFA Broncos; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--CB Keenan Lewis: UFA Steelers; $26M/5 yrs, $6M SB/$11M guaranteed.
--QB Luke McCown: UFA Falcons; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--DE Jay Richardson: FA: $715,000/1 yr.
--TE Benjamin Watson: UFA Browns; 3 yrs, terms unknown.
--T Jermon Bushrod: UFA Bears; $36M/5 yrs, $11M SB/$17.715M guaranteed.
--LB Jonathan Casillas: UFA Buccaneers; $3M/1 yr.
--QB Chase Daniel: UFA Chiefs; $10M/3 yrs, $3M SB/$4.8M guaranteed.
--DT Sedrick Ellis: Not tendered as UFA/Bears; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--WR Devery Henderson: Not tendered as UFA/Redskins; terms unknown.
--RB Chris Ivory: RFA tendered at $2.023M with second-round pick as compensation; $2.023M/1 yr, then traded to New Orleans.
--DE Turk McBride: UFA Bears; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--CB Johnny Patrick (released)
--TE David Thomas (released)
--QB Seneca Wallace (released).