Can David Hawthorne Be an Upgrade over Jonathan Vilma in Rob Ryan's Defense?

Knox Bardeen@knoxbardeenNFC South Lead WriterSeptember 6, 2013

September 9, 2012; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints linebacker David Hawthorne (57) against the Washington Redskins during the second half of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Redskins defeated the Saints 40-32. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

In what’s unfortunately turned commonplace in New Orleans, the Saints placed another linebacker on injured reserve. This time it was Jonathan Vilma, who Tuesday landed on injured reserve/designated to return.

Vilma had a minor surgical procedure on his knee in August and hasn’t recovered as quickly as the team hoped. He’ll not be allowed to practice with the Saints until Week 6 and can’t play until Week 8, per league rules.

Until Vilma returns, David Hawthorne will start at inside linebacker next to Curtis Lofton.

The bad news: Hawthorne has never played in a 3-4 defensive scheme. The potentially good news: Hawthorne’s still probably going to be better than Vilma, who’s actually shown signs of ineptitude in the 3-4 in the past.

When the New York Jets switched to a 3-4 scheme in 2006, Vilma’s decline began, according to this Associated Press report (via CBS Sports):

Vilma, who missed the last nine weeks of last season with an injured right knee, saw his production decline the last two seasons after coach Eric Mangini took over and installed a 3-4 defensive scheme. With rookie David Harris' emergence as a playmaker at inside linebacker, Vilma became expendable.

From 2004 to 2006 Vilma notched 390 tackles and even led the league with 169 in 2005. In 2007 he missed nine games with a knee injury. But even prior to the injury that ended his season, Vilma’s production dropped to its lowest level of his career.

Mike Triplett, of the Times-Picayune, feels because of Hawthorne’s versatility, he could end up being an upgrade over Vilma:

Although Hawthorne has never played in a 3-4 scheme before, he's a self-described "jack of all trades" who said he's done a little bit of everything now that he's played for five different defensive coordinators in six NFL seasons.

Hawthorne had some pretty good years in more than one of those systems. And he could easily wind up being an upgrade over Vilma if he can once again be the guy who racked up more than 100 tackles in three straight seasons for the Seahawks from 2009-2011.

Hawthorne had 338 tackles over three years from 2009 to 2011 and twice finished in the top 16 of NFL tacklers. Last season he struggled in his first year in New Orleans, never really finding a rhythm in Steve Spagnuolo’s defense, where he was asked to move from one side of the defense to the other and struggled with injuries.

But why would Hawthorne’s transition to a 3-4 scheme fare any better than Vilma’s?

It’s possible that experience may play a role. Vilma was only 25 when he was asked to move from a 4-3 to a 3-4. Hawthorne is 28. This is where Hawthorne’s “jack of all trades” mentality could pay off.

Who Hawthorne has in the middle with him may also help. When Vilma made the transition in 2007, he was the guy. David Harris was on the verge of taking off, but opposite Vilma was Eric Barton, who didn’t have the chops Hawthorne’s linebacker-mate Lofton has.

Lofton has ranked in the top 20 in NFL tackles in each of the last four seasons—twice he’s finished in the top 10. He’ll be the focal point of offenses as opposing teams try to break ball-carriers into the middle of the defense and past. When Lofton is fighting off lead blockers and double teams from the line, Hawthorne is going to be a little freer to make plays.

Being able to move and build a head of steam to fight through traffic could be a huge benefit to Hawthorne, who Darren Sproles told the Times-Picayune likes to inflict pain:

He's strong, for one, said Saints tailback Darren Sproles, who remembers taking note of Hawthorne when Sproles was with the San Diego Chargers. He likes to blow stuff up. He's one of those 'backers who wants to blow it up instead of sideswipe the fullback, you know what I'm saying. (Not just the ball carrier). The whole play.

With the diminished linebacker corps due to injury, the Saints really have no choice but to run with Hawthorne in the middle of the defense to replace Vilma. But with Hawthorne’s new-found health and a new 3-4 scheme brought to town by Rob Ryan, Hawthorne could turn out to be a hidden gem.

Ryan likes to create confusion with multiple pre-snap looks and blitz packages. Hawthorne likes to mix things up. And since he’s played for five different defensive coordinators in the last six seasons, Hawthorne seems to handle change rather well.

When Vilma comes back, he may not have a position to reclaim.


Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.

Knox Bardeen is the NFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report and the author of “100 Things Falcons Fans Should Know & Do Before they Die.” Be sure to follow Knox on Twitter.