Sean Payton admitted it last week. Brian Simmons didn’t work out last year for the New Orleans Saints. Simmons, a 10-year pro, only managed 27 tackles and started just three games for the Saints as he never made a real impact.
So Payton and Saints general manager Mickey Loomis went out and got someone who likely will — former New York Jets linebacker Jonathan Vilma. The Saints dealt a draft pick in 2008 and a conditional pick in 2009 for Vilma, who fell out of favor in New York thanks to injuries and to head coach Eric Mangini’s 3-4 defensive system. The Saints see Vilma as a middle linebacker would could overtake Mark Simoneau as the starter.
Vilma seemed overjoyed with the trade when he spoke to the New Orleans media for the first time.
Nearly a month later, Payton feels the same way.
“We felt the player (Vilma) fit what we were looking for from a leadership, character standpoint, from a scheme standpoint, all the things matched,” Payton said. “The key was the injury.”
Yes, that is the key, and that makes Vilma a gamble for the Saints in 2008.
Last season a dead piece of bone in Vilma’s knee dislodged itself and gave Vilma so much trouble he eventually needed surgery. He played just seven games and finished with 43 tackles. Worse, he and Mangini sparred publicly. And there was the perception that the 6-foot-1, 230-pound Vilma was a poor fit for the 3-4. He even mentioned after the trade that he was happy to be getting back to a 4-3 defense, which the Saints employ.
Payton had his own take on the injury.
“I think the way it was best described was this dead surface of bone just chipped off and has now been replaced,” Payton said.
Vilma is not game ready yet. He’s still rehabbing the injury. He was in New Orleans for the first week of the team’s offseason conditioning program, but returned to Miami for two weeks to continue training before returning to New Orleans for good. The rehab is the nagging doubt on Vilma.
“We just got to get through this period of time where he’s rehabbing and see how quickly he gets back to being 100 percent,” Payton said.
Before the injury and Mangini’s arrival in New York, Vilma was one of the most talked about defenders in football. He followed his 107-tackle rookie season in 2004 with a 177-tackle season in 2005. He quickly cultivated a reputation as one of the NFL’s most feared young linebackers.
His production before the injury was just part of the reason the Saints were willing to risk a trade for Vilma. The other, Payton said, was the simple fact that he and team official felt they needed to upgrade their talent at linebacker.
And that starts, he said, with Vilma.
“Vilma is one guy we think can compete inside,” Payton said. “We felt pretty good about his health in that decision. And that was an important sign for us we felt.”
The Saints still have Simoneau in case Vilma’s rehab slows, but all signs point to Vilma being ready for training camp, perhaps even earlier.
In some ways the situation is similar to Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who came to New Orleans before the 2006 season as a free agent and coming off a shoulder injury suffered in the 2005 finale for San Diego.
There was some degree of risk when the Saints signed Brees, Payton said. Like Brees, Payton said the first step is to be patient with Vilma as he finishes his rehab.
We knew because of the type of player he (Brees) is and the type of guy he is, he was going to rehab and do everything diligently in his control to improve the injury,” Payton said. “I feel the same way about Jonathan, that he’ll cross all the Ts and dot all the Is and do everything the doctors tell him to get himself healthy. That’s where we’re at.”
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