- Pat Yasinskas, ESPN Staff Writer
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NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced heavy penalties (suspensions, a heavy fine and the forfeiture of draft picks) against the New Orleans Saints on Wednesday. But this story is far from over.
Let’s take a look at what else might happen.
What’s left to come?
Pat Yasinskas: Disciplinary action against the players. The NFL has said anywhere from 22 to 27 players were actively involved in a three-year bounty program in which Saints’ defenders were offered financial incentives to intentionally injure opponents. The players also were involved in funding the programs. Goodell has said there will be disciplinary action against the players, but he didn’t announce it when he revealed the suspensions for coach Sean Payton, former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, assistant head coach Joe Vitt, general manager Mickey Loomis, a $500,000 fine for the team, and the loss of second-round draft picks in 2012 and 2013.
That’s because Goodell has agreed to allow the NFL Players Association some time to complete an independent investigation into the situation. Goodell is expected to meet soon with union leader DeMaurice Smith and will listen to recommendations on penalties. The ultimate decision on that rests with Goodell, and given the severity of the punishment he already has handed out, look for the penalties against players to also be harsh.
Expect multiple suspensions and heavy fines. Goodell is intent on making sure nothing like this ever happens again. He already got the message out to coaches and administrators. But he also has to make it clear to players.
When will those penalties come?
PY: Unless Goodell and Smith meet very quickly, there probably will be a little lag time on this. The annual NFL spring meeting begins Monday in Palm Beach, Fla., and Goodell will have to travel there sometime over the weekend. Once the meeting gets started, he’ll be tied up with other matters.
The likely scenario is that an announcement will come late next week or early the following week.
Which players have the most to lose?
PY: It’s hard to say, because the NFL’s report didn’t go into a lot of specific details on players. But the one player that was singled out in the report was New Orleans middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma. The NFL said he was responsible for placing a $10,000 bounty of former Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre. That’s not going to look good when a decision on his punishment is made. It’s likely Vilma will face a multiple-game suspension, and he probably will be the player with the most severe punishment.
But it’s not likely to end with Vilma. The NFL obviously turned up a lot of details in its investigation, but held back details on specific players. Those details likely will come out when discipline for players is announced. Expect more suspensions and plenty of fines.
Will the NFL stagger the suspensions, or will they all come at the same time in the 2012 season?
PY: Keep in mind, the punishment on this one isn’t likely to be limited to just the Saints. There are former New Orleans defenders scattered about the league, and some are out of the NFL. They’re still subject to discipline. But it’s likely the Saints will have multiple defenders facing penalties. If a lot of them are facing multiple-game suspensions, the NFL might have to stagger the suspensions. You could argue the penalties already have put the Saints at a competitive disadvantage. But forcing them to play multiple games without, let’s just say for example, half their defense, would make the Saints completely non-competitive. If there are a lot of players suspended, the NFL might have to spread things out.
How will the Saints replace the suspended players?
PY: Again, much will depend on the number of players suspended. But the fact that Loomis will be allowed to work through the offseason, and begin his suspension just before the regular season opens, will give him time to put a plan in place. He’s likely to go heavy on defensive players in the draft, although the Saints won’t have a pick in the first two rounds (the first-round pick was lost last year when the Saints traded up to get Mark Ingram. The second-round choice was forfeited as part of the punishment). So the Saints might have to play some of their middle-round draft picks very early in the season.
The Saints already have added free-agent defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley, and have had multiple free-agent linebackers in for visits. The Saints have been active in free agency throughout the Loomis/Payton era. But there’s an additional challenge this year, because the Saints are very tight against the salary cap. Part of the issue is that quarterback Drew Brees is currently carrying the franchise tag while he and the team try to work out a long-term contract. A new deal isn’t likely to free up much cap room. In fact, unless there’s some unusual structure to it, Brees’ cap figure will probably be in the $19 million range. But the Saints need to get him signed just to create some stability.
Then, there are other ways Loomis can work with the cap. There are several players who could be released to free up cap room, and several other contracts that easily could be restructured. There’s little doubt the Saints will remain players in free agency. They also could catch a bit of an in-season cap break. Once players begin suspensions, they don’t count against the cap. They’ll again count against the cap once they are reinstated, but their prorated salary for the games they miss won’t continue to count against the cap, because they won’t be paid for the games they miss due to suspension.