- There isn't a better, more complete linebacker in the NFL than Carolina's Luke Kuechly, who led the league last season with 153 tackles but is much, much more than just a run stuffer. He also had three sacks, an interception, a forced fumble and an ability that allows him to be an every-down player, capable of dropping into coverage as well as dropping a back short of the first-down marker on fourth-and-inches. He's the signal caller for the Panthers defense, a team's leader and relies on impeccable instincts and great study habits as well as top-flight ability. And, of course, the New Orleans Saints get to see him twice when they play their division rivals.
- Tampa Bay's Lavonte Davidis as respected by the Saints offensive coaches as any linebacker New Orleans faces. In 14 games last season, he posted 146 tackles (third-most in the league), four forced fumbles, recovered a fumble, defensed four passes and had a sack. In his second NFL season (2013), he had 145 tackles, seven sacks, five interceptions and two forced fumbles. Coach Lovie Smithhas made a living out of getting the most from players like David (think Brian Urlacherand Lance Briggsin Chicago). And, yes, the Saints have to face the Buccaneers twice, too.
- Outside linebacker Thomas Davisisn't far off the pace set by his heralded, feted Panthers teammate. He teams with Kuechly likely to give Carolina the league's best 1-2 punch at linebacker. Davis had 100 tackles, 2.5 sacks and two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery last year. He's getting a little long in the tooth (32 years old, entering his 11th season) but has had three straight seasons of at least 15 games played and 100 tackles.
- When you think of the Colts, you think of the high-powered offense. The defense is overshadowed – rightfully so – but it's hard to ignore the production of D'Qwell Jackson. There's mileage on his body after nine NFL seasons but, clearly, tread remains on the tires. Last year Jackson had 138 tackles – his fourth consecutive season of at least 118 – to go along with four sacks and four fumble recoveries. He also forced a fumble and recorded a pass defensed. Whatever concessions he has made physically, he has compensated for mentally.
- Have you heard of Bruce Carter? No? Last season, he had 68 tackles and five interceptions for the Cowboys, with eight passes defensed and four tackles for loss. Unfortunately, instead of seeing him once this season (with Dallas), the Saints will see him twice. He was picked up by Tampa Bay in the offseason, meaning the Bucs also possess a pretty potent combo at linebacker.
Photos of David Hawthorne from the 2014 season. Photos by Michael C. Hebert. (New Orleans Saints photos)