METAIRIE, La. – Between Jonathan Vilma's latest knee surgery and Curtis Lofton's mysterious absence late last week, it's hard to know who might see the most work at inside linebacker in the Saints' new defensive scheme.
Good thing for New Orleans that it appears to have solid depth in that area.
Roman Humber and David Hawthorne demonstrated that in Friday night's preseason game against Oakland.
"Both those guys played well," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "With the snaps that they're getting, the reps they're getting — we just finished talking about this a little bit — going into the start of the season, we just have to continue to develop and train and be ready to play.
"Knowing how the season unfolds, all of these guys end up in roles that are significant. We just don't know which game," Payton added. "Hopefully you stay as healthy as possible, but with the roster size that it is and the length of the season, that's pretty normal."
Humber, a fifth-year pro who was undrafted out of North Dakota State, filled in for Lofton at strong-side middle linebacker and was credited with nine tackles, including a sack and a stop on fourth-and-short.
Hawthorne, in his sixth season, had three tackles while playing Vilma's weakside spot.
They manned the middle of a unit that allowed 130 yards, one offensive touchdown and sacked Raiders starter Matt Flynn in the first half, after which mostly reserves came in.
Lofton, who has a history of back problems, returned to practice Monday but declined to discuss why he did not play Friday. He said he sees inside linebacker as one of the strengths of New Orleans' defense.
He was not surprised by the showing of Humber and Hawthorne, whom he's seen working extra in the film room and after practice. They've been sure to ask as many questions as it takes to nail down their assignments. Lofton also said their maturity is helping them cope better with the speed of the game.
"We're all in our prime," Lofton said. "Football has got to slow down. It slowed down for me and it's starting to slow down for those guys. You can see that in how they played this past week."
The 28-year-old Hawthorne started 10 games last season, but was hampered by left knee and right hamstring injuries and has said he is eager to show he can provide more support to his unit than he did a year ago.
Humber, who started his career in Indianapolis in 2009 and played against New Orleans in the Super Bowl, joined the Saints in 2010 and has seen much of his work on special teams.
"This year is different," Humber said. "I think this year I came in a little hungrier and little more focused. I'm really just focused on being all I can be out on the field and not just being known as a special teams player."
Humber said he feels comfortable playing either inside linebacker spot. That means he, too, could be a candidate to fill in on the weak side should Vilma's rehabilitation from arthroscopic surgery on his left knee not be complete when the regular season opens Sept 8.
"Anywhere they need me, I'll play," Humber said. "It doesn't really matter to me, just as long as I get the opportunity to play."
For now, though, Hawthorne is working as the starter in Vilma's spot, and it is not at all clear when Vilma, who has had recurring left knee problems the past two seasons, will be back.
When Payton was asked if he could estimate a timeline for Vilma's return, he responded, "No," and abruptly walked away from reporters.
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