The Saints have reportedly lost outside linebacker Will Smith for the season with a knee injury.
The Pro Football Talk report is only the latest hit to a linebacker corps that has been decimated by injury so far this preseason.
The last time the Saints had all four projected Day 1 starters in the lineup at linebacker? June 11.
Since then, Victor Butler tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. His replacement – Junior Galette – has missed most of training camp with an undisclosed injury. Martez Wilson, another backup, has missed most of training camp with a dislocated left elbow.
Jonathan Vilma had arthroscopic surgery to repair an injury to his left knee, one that already had at least three other procedures done to it the past two and a half years. He hasn’t practiced since Aug. 14.
And Curtis Lofton has missed at least three days while resting a less-than-100 percent healthy back.
In other words, if Vilma doesn’t end up returning, the Saints will start the Sept. 8 season opener against Atlanta with only one starter – Lofton – who was projected at the position when the offseason began.
The latest injury, Smith’s, came when he was rolled into as defensive end Cameron Jordan sacked Texans quarterback Matt Schaub. He walked off the field on his own, but never returned.
While Galette and Wilson are both expected back by the season opener, the loss opens up a spot for others, including rookies Rufus Johnson and Eric Martin and veteran backup Baraka Atkins.
That’s not exactly a stress-reducing trio.
Johnson has tons of upside but not a lot of experience playing against top-flight athletes. He played collegiately at Tarleton State, far from the bright lights of NCAA FBS competition.
Martin, out of Nebraska, is an undrafted rookie free agent who started training camp working with the second team defense. But he hasn’t been able to capitalize on that.
And Atkins hasn’t played in the NFL since 2009, going to camp with three different teams the past three seasons only to get cut before the first week.
It’s not that Galette and Wilson aren’t the answers. But neither have experience in a starting role.
Galette was an undrafted free agent when he signed with New Orleans in 2010 and while he steadily has seen more playing time, he has never had to be a complete player, focusing only on rushing the passer.
Wilson is a former third-round pick who has shown flashes of brilliance, but has yet to fulfill the potential the Saints saw when they took him in the 2011 draft. He played more of a role on special teams than he has on defense.
New Orleans certainly can try and look for a trade, but with NFL rosters being cut to 75 from 90 players by Tuesday afternoon, it’s likely the Saints will wait to see what hits the waiver wire.
Regardless, the timing of Smith’s injury is less than stellar. Whoever steps up will be new and have to learn Rob Ryan’s defense in less than two weeks, they’ll be coming off an injury (Wilson) or they’ll be young and inexperienced.
An already weak position just became weaker.