At pivotal time for Saints, here’s a position-by-position look at how their offseason might unfold _lowres

New Orleans Saints outside linebacker David Hawthorne (57) during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 6, 2013, in Chicago.(AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

David Hawthorne’s new role in the New Orleans defense is anything but.

Hawthorne, who has shifted to middle linebacker this spring and summer to compete at the spot formerly occupied by Curtis Lofton, is back to where his career began.

Now, all Hawthorne has to do to stay in that role is hold off a challenge from promising first-round pick Stephone Anthony, a player who caught on quickly during the Saints’ summer practices and turned heads with several eye-popping plays in coverage.

“Every year, a rookie comes in at my position,” Hawthorne said. “There’s nothing different. He’s good; he’ll be some good competition.”

Hawthorne, a seven-year veteran, has started 37 of the 39 games he’s played in New Orleans, mostly at weakside linebacker, now filled by veteran import Dannell Ellerbe and returning veteran Ramon Humber.

But Hawthorne spent most of his football career in the middle. He lined up at middle linebacker for TCU’s defense in college, then spent three seasons starting in the middle of Seattle’s defense.

Hawthorne said he feels most comfortable in charge of the huddle.

“It’s more natural for me, because I played it all my life,” Hawthorne said at the Saints’ mandatory minicamp in June. “At that position, it kind of makes you step up to the front a little bit more and be more vocal, because they’re looking for you to be the signal-caller, be the guy.”

Hawthorne’s experience has paid off so far. During the Saints’ summer OTAs and minicamp, the transition was seamless, as Hawthorne took the on-field lead for the No. 1 unit in defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s simplified defensive installation.

“David’s done a great job,” Ryan said. “He’s a smart player, so that transition’s gone very smoothly with him.”

Hawthorne, who agreed in March to take a pay cut to drop his salary-cap hit and remain with the Saints, instantly became a leader for the linebacking corps — and by extension, the defense as a whole — when New Orleans released Lofton.

He’s raised his voice accordingly this offseason.

“I think some of that goes with playing the Mike position, because you are calling the defense, so there is a change when all of a sudden you are the signal-caller,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “He is someone that I would say is a veteran leader.”

Hawthorne, who has 174 tackles and six sacks over the past two seasons but also has faced stretches of inconsistent play and battled injuries, will get stiff competition from Anthony, even though the veteran took virtually all of the first-team snaps this summer.

Unlike some rookies, Anthony has already adapted to the speed of the NFL game, and although there is still much to prove for front-seven players once the teams can go to full contact, Ryan has already said he expects Anthony to win a job.

Hawthorne himself has been impressed.

“He’s a good kid with a good head on his shoulders,” Hawthorne said. “He’s picking up things well. He’s athletic, he’s big, he’s smart; and he’ll be a good player in this league.”

If Anthony wins the starting job in the middle, Hawthorne could still slide back to the weak side and rotate with Ellerbe to help keep both veterans fresh.

But Hawthorne wasn’t focused on all of those possibilities during the Saints’ summer workouts. In a refrain that became common for Saints players in position races this summer, Hawthorne said he’s focused only on the task at hand.

The rest will work itself out.

“I never really thought about it,” Hawthorne said. “I just come out here and do what I have to do to prepare for the season.”

At whatever role he’s asked to play.