Saints claim they’re not getting rid of Vilma but their actions say otherwise

Mickey Loomis says that middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma is “still
a big part of our team,”
but the Saints’ latest signing would suggest that the GM is blowing smoke.

The Saints signed free agent middle linebacker Curtis Lofton to a five-year deal on Saturday night and while the financial terms have yet to be released, chances are the former Falcon is being paid like a starter. (After all, he was the defensive captain for the past four years in Atlanta.)

My point is that the Saints didn’t sign him as an insurance policy for Vilma, or for emergency starts. Some have suggested that new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo could use Lofton on the outside, but that’s a dangerous proposition for the Saints. L0fton is a solid two-down “thumper” in the middle of a 4-3 and that’s where he needs to play in order to be successful. Granted, he has improved his coverage skills since his rookie year in ‘08, but pass defense will never be one of his strengths. Thus, to expect him to hang with tight ends and running backs as a strong-side ‘backer isn’t a realistic option. (To strengthen my point, let me point out that the Falcons have been re-signing their own players left and right this offseason and yet decided to let Lofton walk. That’s because they plan to play more nickel under new DC Mike Nolan and thus, Lofton wasn’t worth the money to essentially be a two-down run-stuffer.)

Which leads me back to Vilma. Despite what Loomis says, there’s still a very good chance that Vilma has played his final down in New Orleans. The Saints will probably wait until they know the severity of his punishment for his involvement in the team’s “bounty program” before they do anything. But I doubt we’ll see Vilma and Lofton lining up in the same linebacker corps next season.

If Vilma is suspended for half the season, the Saints could try to trade him for a late round pick. I doubt another team would bite with Lofton already on the roster, but it’s worth it for the Saints to try and see. And if he’s only suspended four games, Vilma’s trade value obviously goes up, so there’s no reason to release him now.

But either way, Lofton is the team’s long-term answer at middle linebacker. Don’t let the Saints fool you into thinking otherwise.

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Former DC Gregg Williams, Saints in hot water over “bounty program”

New Orleans Saints Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams watches his team prepare for their NFL football game against Tampa Bay Buccaneers in New Orleans, Louisiana January 2, 2011. REUTERS/Sean Gardner (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reports that the New Orleans Saints are potentially facing discipline from the NFL because of former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ “bounty program,” which was designed to pay players for taking out certain opponents.

According to Schefter, the league’s investigation began in 2010 when members of the Saints’ defense began targeting opposing quarterbacks Brett Favre and Kurt Warner. One of the main culprits in the “bounty program” was middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who allegedly put $10,000 in cash on a table and said, “This goes to the guy that knocks out Brett Favre.”

Williams, who is now the defensive coordinator for the St. Louis Rams, had this to say in wake of Schefter’s report:

“I want to express my sincere regret and apology to the NFL, Mr. Benson, and the New Orleans Saints fans for my participation in the ‘pay for performance’ program while I was with the Saints. It was a terrible mistake, and we knew it was wrong while we were doing it. Instead of getting caught up in it, I should have stopped it. I take full responsibility for my role. I am truly sorry. I have learned a hard lesson and I guarantee that I will never participate in or allow this kind of activity to happen again.”

The NFL’s investigation concludes that in some cases, “the amounts pledged were both significant and directed against a specific opposing player.” Four former Redskins players, including defensive end Phillip Daniels, told The Washington Post that Williams had a similar system in place when he was Washington’s defensive coordinator from 2004 to 2007. Former Redskin Matt Bowen even stated that he didn’t regret taking part in the program because, “You do what he (Williams) wants: play though, push the envelope and carry a swagger that every opponent sees on tape.”

It has been reported that head coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis knew about the bounty program but failed to stop it when directed to do so by team owner Tom Benson. ESPN’s John Clayton now speculates that the Saints will face a hefty fine as well as a loss of “multiple draft choices,” and it has also been rumored that Vilma (who is due $5.4 million in 2012) will be a salary cap casualty this offseason.

It’s realistic to believe that Williams and the Saints aren’t the only coaches/players that have a “bounty program” in place to injury fellow opponents. But that doesn’t make the situation just. In fact, it’s rather embarrassing for the NFLPA that they continue to battle the NFL for better medical benefits when their own players are putting up massive amounts of cash in order to hurt each other.

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