Saints mailbag: Better without vets?

Thanks for submitting your questions to me on Twitter this week. I’ll put together a New Orleans Saints mailbag every weekend, and occasionally I’ll sprinkle some questions into my morning report. So send ‘em my way anytime @MikeTriplett.

@Sarcasm_FTW: Do you think the d would be this effective w Vilma, Smith, etc?

@TattooedSaint1: Is it safe to say that the better the defense plays without Vilma and W. Smith, the more expendable they are?

@MikeTriplett: First of all, I do think the Saints defense would be effective with Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma in the lineup. I think both guys might have evolved into more complementary players, but both still have enough talent when healthy to be assets in the same mold as their replacements Parys Haralson and David Hawthorne.

Although I wrote this week about how new young leaders have emerged in the wake of so many veteran injuries, I think that could have happened either way. And I think the main keys to the Saints’ success (Rob Ryan’s approach, the breakout play of guys like Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette, the improved play of the secondary) would have been the same either way.

I don’t think Smith would have taken many snaps away from Galette, especially since the Saints have spent 75 percent of the time in nickel and dime defenses. If anything, Smith would have become a hybrid linebacker/lineman, replacing Haralson in base and moving inside in some of those nickel and dime packages. … Perhaps you could argue that Hawthorne is playing better than Vilma would have played, but we don’t know that for sure.

As to whether or not Smith and Vilma will be more expendable in the future, there’s probably some truth to that. But I think either guy could be back next year in part-time roles as long as they’re willing to play for very minimal salaries. (For example, Smith could sign the type of deal that veteran end Kenyon Coleman signed this past offseason). Of course, their health will play a big part in those decisions. Vilma will have a chance to prove his worth when he comes back off the injured-reserve list around midseason.

@JBenton: Given injuries & personnel, do you think the defense will be primarily in a 4-3 the rest of the year, or will the 3-4 return?

@MikeTriplett: I addressed this topic in my Sunday morning breakdown of the fronts and alignments the Saints have used so far this season (they haven’t exactly been in a “4-3” this season, but they’ve played a ton of nickel and dime defense with four-man fronts). And, yes, I do think we’ll continue to see more of the same for the rest of the season. … Maybe things would have been a little different if outside linebacker Victor Butler would have stayed healthy, since the Saints would have wanted him and Galette both on the field a lot as pass-rushers. But I think they were going to use a lot of nickel and dime packages regardless.

@chefcdb: the Dolphins have been both efficient & explosive in RedZone. How do Saints make them kick FG, and is Hartline our #1 worry?

@MikeTriplett: The Dolphins have been outstanding in the red zone so far this year (seven touchdowns in eight trips inside the 20 -- best in the NFL). But those stats have a way of balancing out over time. I don’t think they’re especially dangerous in that area for any particular reason. They’ve just been an efficient passing offense, in general. I think the Saints’ biggest worry against Miami will be making sure they don’t give up any big plays in the passing game against receivers Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline (something the Saints have been great at all season). The Saints always want to make their opponents work for touchdowns. They’ll live with long TD drives like the 11-play drive they gave up last week against the Arizona Cardinals.

@PatrickORly: The defense has been performing well so far, but what weakness do you still see?

@MikeTriplett: I wouldn’t say I’ve seen “weaknesses.” But I would definitely expect some regression and some highs and lows still to come. It would be hard for any defense to keep up this level of play all year long. They’ll have some days where they give up some big rushing yards (especially when they start facing some mobile quarterbacks). They’ll eventually start giving up some big plays in the passing game, here and there. And they’ll have some games where the four-man rush simply isn’t getting to the quarterback. But I like them to be a solid unit all year long that’s capable of coming up big in some big moments.

I think the most legitimate area of improvement is in the secondary, where Rob Ryan’s scheme is much more suited to the players’ strengths. I would especially trust veteran corners Keenan Lewis and Jabari Greer to remain solid. … I also think the pass rush we’ve seen from young risers like Cameron Jordan, Junior Galette and Akiem Hicks is pretty bona fide. That’s by far the biggest difference from years past.

@rrhodeswriter: Will Nick Toon's picture come off of milk cartons this week?

@MikeTriplett: This was a popular question this week. But I wouldn’t expect too much from second-year receiver Nick Toon even if Lance Moore is inactive Monday night. As much as I like Toon’s potential as a big, physical receiver with great hands and deceptive speed, he’s just stuck far down in the pecking order in a deep Saints’ passing attack. (Remember, Toon was active in Week 1 while Robert Meachem was still inactive, and he didn’t have any catches). ... It is possible that Toon will get a couple balls thrown his way Monday -- and you never know when the Saints will sneak in a TD pass to any player on the field. But I’d expect more targets for Marques Colston, Kenny Stills, Meachem, Jimmy Graham, Benjamin Watson and Darren Sproles.

@BrannonBourque: What other recent NFL defensive rookie has played every snap and 5 different defensive positions like Vacarro has?

@MikeTriplett: Apparently it’s not very common. A few analysts have compared the way the Saints are using safety Kenny Vaccaro to the way the Pittsburgh Steelers use Troy Polamalu. But longtime NFL Films analyst Greg Cosell just pointed out this week that Polamalu had trouble getting on the field as a rookie and that the Vaccaro’s volume of assignments has been rare.