NFC South: Jo-Lonn Dunbar


Back in March, I wrote this column about how a potential long-term contract for quarterback Drew Brees could gut the New Orleans Saints.

The premise was simple. If the Saints gave Brees big money, they might not be able to keep all the players they wanted. The Saints still haven’t signed Brees and he’s been counting for more than $16 million as the franchise player. The Saints and Brees still hope to get a long-term deal by next week’s deadline.

So far, general manager Mickey Loomis has done an excellent job of spreading money around to keep the Saints from losing a lot. They’ve restructured several contracts to free up cap room. They did lose guard Carl Nicks, receiver Robert Meachem, cornerback Tracy Porter and linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar as free agents, but I think Nicks was the only one the Saints had a real strong interest in keeping.

Brees
Loomis was able to replace Nicks with Ben Grubbs. He also added linebackers Curtis Lofton, David Hawthorne and Chris Chamberlain and defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley.

But, still, the Saints don’t have a long-term deal done with Brees and no matter how that situation plays out, there could be big implications in the short term and the long term. The Saints might have to release some players to make room for Brees with a long-term deal and John Clayton mentions linebacker Will Herring, running back Pierre Thomas, tight end David Thomas and safety Roman Harper as potential salary-cap casualties in the short term.

Clayton also points out that if Brees ends up playing for the franchise tag this year, the Saints could have to use the tag again next offseason and the cost would jump to $23.6 million.

That’s another reason why the Saints have to get a deal done with Brees in the next week. They were hurt -- but not entirely gutted -- this offseason. If they have to start next offseason with Brees counting $23.6 million toward the cap, they’re going to have to release some players and they also will have a tough time keeping potential free agents like Devery Henderson, Sedrick Ellis, Jermon Bushrod, Scott Shanle and Jonathan Casillas.

Evening update on the Saints

June, 6, 2012
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METAIRIE, La. -- A few quick notes on the Saints, who had a much calmer practice Wednesday afternoon than they did in the morning session. The practice was moved indoors and essentially amounted to a walkthrough.
  • Rookie wide receiver Nick Toon has made some nice catches through the first two days of minicamp. Offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael responded positively when asked about Toon’s progress -- "Still impressed with his hands, runs good routes, so we're excited about him."
  • Michael Silver reports that when filmmaker Sean Pamphilon visited the NFL office several weeks ago, league officials seemed particularly interested in the portion of an audiotape where former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams discussed $200 rewards for “whack hits’’ by safety Roman Harper and former New Orleans linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar. Although Dunbar and Harper have not been disciplined, Silver’s source said the revelation could be significant as further evidence that the Saints ran a three-year bounty program. However, that seems to be open to debate. Two sources told Silver that “whack hits’’ are forceful and clean plays with no intention of hurting an opponent.
  • There’s no indication that anything is imminent, but there are reports that suggest quarterback Drew Brees and the Saints are only about $1 million apart on yearly average for a long-term contract. As I’ve said all along, this thing may drag on a bit longer, but I have no doubt Brees will be signed before training camp.
  • Second-year pro Martez Wilson, who is making the move from linebacker to defensive end, said he believes he someday can be a Hall of Famer. If he can be anything remotely close to that, I think the Saints, who really need to improve their pass rush, will be more than delighted.

Around the NFC South

April, 3, 2012
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Time for a quick look at the headlines from around the NFC South.
  • Atlanta free-agent cornerback Kelvin Hayden could take the same route as linebacker Curtis Lofton. Hayden visited with the New Orleans Saints.
  • Outside linebacker Jordan Senn reportedly has re-signed with the Panthers. This gives Carolina some depth at linebacker. That’s important because veterans Thomas Davis and Jon Beason are returning from serious injuries.
  • Former New Orleans linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar’s two-year deal with the St. Louis Rams could be worth as much as $5 million if he hits all incentives. That’s more than the Saints, who are tight against the salary cap, could afford to pay Dunbar.
  • Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff reportedly watched the workouts of Mississippi State quarterback Austin Davis and receiver Ryan Balentine.
  • No big surprise here. LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne will have a private visit with the Buccaneers. He’s a very possible target with the No. 5 overall pick in the draft.
  • The Bucs reportedly have signed exclusive-rights free agent Preston Parker. It’s unclear if the receiver merely signed his tender or if he got a new deal.

Around the NFC South

April, 2, 2012
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Time for a run through the top headlines from around the NFC South.
  • Although it had been widely reported that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell would hear appeals from New Orleans coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis on their suspensions Tuesday, Adam Schefter now reports the appeals might have to be pushed back.
  • Gerry Vaillancourt writes that making Bill Parcells interim head coach of the Saints would be a mistake. I’m already on the record saying I think putting Parcells in Payton’s place is a wise move. But I’ve known Gerry since our days together in Charlotte and always respect his opinions. His main argument is that going with Parcells would be a slight to the assistants currently on Payton’s staff. Point taken, but I’m not sure offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael is vocal enough to be a head coach and defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has experience as a head coach, but is new to the Saints and doesn’t know their personnel yet. But I’ll throw out one other scenario I could see making sense -- make Carmichael or Spagnuolo or even offensive line coach Aaron Kromer the head coach and bring Parcells on as a “special assistant." That’s what the Buccaneers did with Butch Davis. If Parcells isn’t coaching, the clock on his Hall of Fame candidacy doesn’t have to start all over. Plus, Parcells also has experience on the personnel side and that could come in handy when Loomis’ suspension begins at the start of the season.
  • Former Atlanta Falcons coach Bobby Petrino, currently the coach at the University of Arkansas, was injured in a motorcycle crash. Petrino reportedly is in stable condition.
  • Former New Orleans linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar has agreed to terms with the St. Louis Rams. Dunbar was a versatile and dependable backup, who wound up starting 14 games last year. I think the Saints wanted to keep him, but their salary-cap situation made that impossible.
  • As the Buccaneers opened their offseason program (they get a two-week head start because they made a coaching change), coach Greg Schiano said “Today marks the beginning of something." There’s no doubt about that because it’s the first time the players get to work with the new staff. But I also think this may be the start of something good. The Bucs have some good young talent, they added some big-name free agents and everything I’ve seen out of and heard about Schiano is that he’s a very organized coach. I’m not ready to say the Bucs are going to go out and win the Super Bowl, or even the NFC South, right away, but I think they’ll be much better than the 4-12 team they were last season.

What's up with Jonathan Vilma?

March, 16, 2012
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Since the start of free agency, we’ve seen the New Orleans Saints tied to linebackers Curtis Lofton, David Hawthorne, Joe Mays and Chris Chamberlain.

Vilma
That has led to rampant speculation that the team will release veteran middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma.

But, citing league sources, Mike Triplett reports that the team has no plans to release Vilma. However, it’s obvious that the Saints are planning to do something to shake up their linebacker corps. They’re letting top reserve Jo-Lonn Dunbar test free agency. They still have veteran outside linebacker Scott Shanle, and have high hopes for second-year pro Martez Wilson. And they put a restricted tender on Jonathan Casillas.

The report that the Saints don’t plan to release Vilma brings up several other scenarios. They could be expecting him to serve a suspension, because his name has surfaced with allegations that he was deeply involved in the team’s bounty program.

Even if Vilma isn’t suspended, the team might be looking to simply get deeper at linebacker. Vilma is about to turn 30, and he missed five games with a knee injury last season. The Saints could ask him to take a backup role in the middle, or switch to the outside.

But if Vilma is indeed staying, don’t be surprised if the Saints try to restructure his contract. At the moment, his cap figure is $7.6 million. The Saints have some cap issues, and they could free up $3.68 million by releasing Vilma. If they’re keeping him and bringing in other linebackers, they’ll need to clear at least some of Vilma’s cap space.

Around the NFC South

March, 15, 2012
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Compared to Tuesday and Wednesday, Thursday has been a pretty quiet day in the NFC South, at least so far. I’m not saying that to make you think there’s something brewing tonight, but you never know.

If there is, we’ll let you know. In the meantime, let’s take a look at some news and notes from around the division.

The Tennessee Titans and Denver Broncos reportedly have shown some interest in Atlanta Falcons defensive end John Abraham. But I’m not ready to completely rule out a return to the Falcons, especially since they’re currently without a legitimate pass-rushing threat. I’m not saying I think it’s a great idea to re-sign a player who seems to be near the end of his career. But I think the Falcons might do it, if Abraham’s price tag falls below what it was at the start of free agency.

The Dallas Cowboys continue to gut the Carolina Panthers. They now have signed former Carolina linebacker Dan Connor. That comes a day after Dallas landed former Carolina offensive lineman Mackenzy Bernadeau. I’m just kidding about the “gutting’’ part. The Panthers had little interest in keeping Connor and no interest in keeping Bernardeau.

Just when I thought I’d found a free-agent linebacker who wasn’t on the Saints’ radar, I’ve got to start looking again. It turns out the Saints also reportedly have expressed interest in St. Louis’ Chris Chamberlain. But he might make some sense. New Orleans defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo coached Chamberlain with the Rams.

Speaking of the Saints and linebackers, Jo-Lonn Dunbar says it remains possible he could re-sign with New Orleans.

Everything still seems very quiet in Atlanta. But Jeff Schultz has a good overview of the situation with the Falcons, and I agree with his point that if the roster remains basically the same as last season, the coaching needs to be better next season.

David Hawthorne to visit Saints

March, 14, 2012
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The New Orleans Saints are bringing in free-agent linebacker David Hawthorne for a visit Friday, a league source said.

Hawthorne, 26, spent the past four seasons in Seattle and emerged as a starter in 2009. Hawthorne had a career-high three interceptions this past season and was in on 115 tackles.

Hawthorne has played primarily in the middle but has played some on the outside. The Seahawks are interested in keeping him but don’t want to overpay.

The Saints seem to be in transition at linebacker with Jo-Lonn Dunbar on the free-agent market, and some uncertainty about the futures of Jonathan Vilma and Will Herring. Vilma is coming off a knee injury and has a high salary-cap figure. Herring, who was signed last year from Seattle, didn’t produce this past season and could be a cap casualty.

The Saints have some familiarity with Hawthorne, whom they played against in a playoff game after the 2010 season. New defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo also was previously the head coach in St. Louis and saw a lot of Hawthorne in the NFC West.

Atlanta LB duo a fixture on the field

February, 7, 2012
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Atlanta linebackers Curtis Lofton and Sean Weatherspoon almost never left the field during the 2011 season.

According to playing-time numbers obtained by ESPN.com, Lofton participated in 986 of Atlanta’s 996 defensive plays (99 percent). Weatherspoon was right behind him, taking part in 976 plays (97.9 percent). Those two and Carolina’s James Anderson (97.3 percent) easily outdistanced the rest of the NFC South linebackers in playing time.

In fact, only Cleveland’s D'Qwell Jackson, St. Louis' James Laurinaitis, Chicago’s Lance Briggs and Washington’s Ryan Kerrigan, who each played all of their team’s defensive snaps, and Minnesota’s Chad Greenway (99.3 percent) participated in a higher percentage of plays than Lofton, Weatherspoon and Anderson.

Here’s a list at the rest of the leading NFC South linebackers in percentage of playing time:

Saints: First look at free agency

January, 31, 2012
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No NFC South team faces a more challenging period between now and the start of free agency than the New Orleans Saints.

They have to find a way to re-sign quarterback Drew Brees, and there are at least a couple other players that it’s essential the Saints retain. They’ve also got some important role players and will need to find ways to keep several of them despite a difficult salary-cap situation.

Let’s take a look at New Orleans’ potential free agents. They’re all unrestricted, unless noted otherwise:

Brees, defensive end Jeff Charleston, receiver Marques Colston, linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar, defensive tackle Aubrayo Franklin, tight end John Gilmore, tight end Tory Humphrey, kicker John Kasay, defensive end Turk McBride, offensive lineman Pat McQuistan, receiver Robert Meachem, guard Carl Nicks, cornerback Tracy Porter, receiver/return man Courtney Roby, defensive tackle Shaun Rogers, cornerback Leigh Torrence, safety Jonathon Amaya (exclusive rights), receiver Adrian Arrington (exclusive rights), center Brian de la Puente (exclusive rights), offensive lineman Justin Drescher (exclusive rights), linebacker Jonathan Casillas (restricted), quarterback Chase Daniel (restricted) and linebacker Ramon Humber (restricted).

Whatever deal Brees signs, it’s likely he’ll take up somewhere around $15 million of the 2012 salary cap. But the Saints will have to continue to spend big money. It’s imperative they keep Nicks. He might be the best guard in the league and he’s Brees’ top protector. Keeping Colston also would seem to be a top priority because he’s one of Brees’ favorite targets.

Once the accounting is done on Brees, Nicks and Colston, the Saints will have to make some tough financial decisions. Porter and Meachem are important role players. But they could have market value elsewhere. The Saints might not be able to afford to keep them. That would hurt, but it might not be disastrous because the Saints have good depth at receiver and cornerback.

Saints' cap situation not that dire

January, 16, 2012
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It’s been a rough couple days for fans of the New Orleans Saints. New Orleans was eliminated from the playoffs by San Francisco on Saturday and the gloom is going to linger for a bit.

But I’ve got a little news that might help it begin to lift.

New Orleans’ salary-cap situation for 2012 isn’t quite as bad as early reports made it sound. League-wide cap figures had the Saints listed with about $106 million already committed toward the 2012 salary cap.

It turns out that number is about $12 million too high. That’s because the figure was including a charge of almost $12 million for quarterback Drew Brees. But 2012 was voided out of Brees’ contract, so the Saints are, for the moment, sitting at about $94 million.

That will change and you can add that $12 million — and then some — right back onto the Saints’ total. They almost certainly will sign Brees to a new contract. I just looked at the cap figures for the NFL’s top quarterbacks and it is likely Brees’ new deal will give him a cap figure somewhere around $15 million for 2012, unless the Saints really get creative in spreading out his money.

Still, that would only put the Saints up to around $109 million. That would leave them some room to re-sign some other key players and they have several. Receiver Marques Colston, guard Carl Nicks, receiver Robert Meachem, defensive tackle Aubrayo Franklin, cornerback Tracy Porter, defensive tackle Shaun Rogers and linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar are among those players not under contract for 2012.

Here’s the complete list of players not under contract for 2012 for the Saints and the rest of the NFC South teams.

Anyway, the bottom line is the Saints aren’t as bad off as we thought in terms of the salary cap. Brees undoubtedly will eat up a good chunk of that, but there still will be some room to work with. Keeping Nicks and Colston probably would get the Saints pretty close to the cap, but they also could restructure some existing contracts or release players to create more room.

NFC South players not signed for 2012

December, 22, 2011
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A lot can change between now and the start of free agency and I sure don’t see any way the New Orleans Saints let quarterback/King Drew Brees walk away. I also think there’s a pretty good chance tight end Tony Gonzalez can return to the Atlanta Falcons if he chooses. Same for cornerback Ronde Barber with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and maybe even Jeremy Shockey with the Carolina Panthers.

But all we know about those guys at the moment is they’re not under contract for 2012. We’ll do much more on free agency as it gets closer but I’ve got the complete list of every NFC South player presently not under contract for 2012.

I’ll list them by team here and we’ll only go with the guys who have at least four years of service and can become unrestricted free agents. We’ll deal with restricted and exclusive-rights free agents at another time.

Atlanta Falcons: Tony Gonzalez, tight end; Reggie Kelly, tight end; Todd McClure, center; Mike Peterson, linebacker; John Abraham, defensive end; Joe Zelenka, long-snapper; Chris Redman, quarterback; Kirk Chambers, offensive line; Kelvin Hayden, cornerback; Brett Romberg, offensive line; James Sanders, safety; Jason Snelling, running back; Kroy Biermann, defensive end; Thomas DeCoud, safety; Harry Douglas, receiver; Brent Grimes, cornerback; Curtis Lofton, linebacker; Eric Weems, receiver.

Carolina Panthers: Jeremy Shockey, tight end; Reggie Wells, offensive line; Derek Anderson, quarterback; Geoff Hangartner, center/guard; Omar Gaither, linebacker; Cletis Gordon, cornerback; Legedu Naanee, receiver; Antwan Applewhite, linebacker; Mackenzy Beranadeau, offensive line; Dan Connor, linebacker; J.J. Jansen, long-snapper; Jerome Felton, fullback; Jordan Senn, linebacker.

New Orleans Saints: John Kasay, kicker; Drew Brees, quarterback; Shaun Rogers, defensive tackle; John Gilmore, tight end; Aubrayo Franklin, defensive tackle; Marques Colston, receiver; Pat McQuistan, offensive line; Courtney Roby, receiver; Leigh Torrence, cornerback; Jeff Charleston, defensive end; Turk McBride, defensive end; Robert Meachem, receiver; Jo-Lonn Dunbar, linebacker; Carl Nicks, guard; Tracy Porter, cornerback.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Ronde Barber, cornerback; Earnest Graham, running back; Sean Jones, safety; Connor Barth, kicker; Geno Hayes, linebacker; Josh Johnson, quarterback; James Lee, offensive line; Corey Lynch, safety; Elbert Mack, cornerback; Frank Okam, defensive tackle; Micheal Spurlock, receiver; Jeremy Zuttah, offensive line.

Wrap-up: Saints 22, Titans 17

December, 11, 2011
12/11/11
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Thoughts on the New Orleans Saints' 22-17 victory against the Tennessee Titans on Sunday at LP Field:

What it means: It wasn’t pretty, but the Saints got a win. At 10-3, they’re atop the NFC South. They also recorded their third straight 10-win season, something that had never happened in franchise history. The Saints also moved to 3-2 in outdoor games this season and it’s been mentioned more than a few times that the Saints are not a good outdoor team. But they beat a good team, although Tennessee quarterback Matt Hasselbeck was injured and rookie Jake Locker had to step in. You could make a case the Saints showed they can win outdoors. But the fact that they didn’t win impressively probably will continue to fuel speculation the Saints could face trouble if they have to go to Green Bay or San Francisco in the postseason.

What I liked: The play of Marques Colston. He caught two fourth-quarter touchdown passes. Colston sometimes gets overlooked because the Saints have so many great offensive weapons and his statistics aren’t what they could be if he played in an offense that didn’t spread the ball around so much. But this guy deserves more credit than he gets. He might not be the best receiver in the league, but he’s in the top 10.

What I didn’t like: The Saints moved the ball early, but had to settle for field goals. That rarely happens with the Saints and you have to think this was a one-time thing.

Defense rises: I thought the New Orleans defense played well through most of last week’s victory against Detroit. The defense also stepped up in the final minutes against Tennessee. The Saints stopped the Titans on a fourth-and-1 with a little over two minutes left. Linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar also sacked Locker as time expired.

The streak lives: It took a little longer than usual, but Drew Brees ran his streak of consecutive games with at least one touchdown pass to 40. That’s second on the all-time list. Johnny Unitas (47) holds the record.

What’s next: The Saints play the Minnesota Vikings next Sunday at Mall of America Field.

Report: Jonathan Vilma had surgery

November, 13, 2011
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ATLANTA -- On Thursday, New Orleans coach Sean Payton said linebacker Jonathan Vilma had not had surgery on his injured knee.

The Times-Picayune now reports that Vilma has had surgery. Vilma didn’t play in Sunday’s victory against Atlanta and also missed the previous game.

Exact details on what was done in the surgery and when it was performed aren’t available. But, if the procedure was minor, the Saints could have Vilma back for their next game.

They have a bye week and don’t play against until they host the New York Giants in a Monday night game. Jo-Lonn Dunbar has been filling in for Vilma at middle linebacker.

Checking injuries that matter most

November, 11, 2011
11/11/11
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We’re at the midway point of the season and guys are getting banged up. I guess that’s why we have what looks to be the most significant Friday injury report so far this season.

Some things already have been decided and some are still hanging out there. For the game-time decisions, be sure to check the blog about 90 minutes before kickoff Sunday. That’s when we start to get the game-day inactives.

Let’s start with the New Orleans Saints because they’ve got some very definitive news. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma (knee) will miss his second straight game. Vilma is the heart and soul of the New Orleans defense and this one is going to hurt. Jo-Lonn Dunbar likely will start in Vilma’s place at middle linebacker. Defensive end Turk McBride (ankle) also has been declared out.

The rest of the New Orleans injury report isn’t quite as clear. Cornerback Patrick Robinson (stomach) is listed as questionable, but the good news is Tracy Porter (chest/neck) is listed as probable. Receiver Lance Moore (hamstring) and running back Chris Ivory (hamstring) are questionable.

There’s mixed news out of Atlanta. Safety William Moore (quadriceps) is listed as doubtful. That likely means veteran James Sanders will start in Moore’s place. On the bright side, rookie receiver Julio Jones (hamstring) is probable after practicing on a limited basis Friday.

Carolina linebacker James Anderson (ankle) did not practice Friday and is listed as questionable. The Panthers already lost their other two initial starting linebackers (Jon Beason) and Thomas Davis) to season-ending injuries.

Tampa Bay left guard Jeremy Zuttah, who missed last week’s game with a knee injury, is expected to be back in the starting lineup Sunday. Defensive tackle Frank Okam (calf) is questionable. That means it’s likely that newly-acquired Albert Haynesworth probably will get some playing time Sunday.

Saints banged up on defense

November, 9, 2011
11/09/11
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As they prepare for Sunday’s game with Atlanta, the New Orleans Saints appear to have some injury issues on defense.

Three key players sat out Wednesday’s practice. Middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma (knee) and cornerbacks Tracy Porter (neck/chest) and Patrick Robinson (stomach) sat out.

Vilma, the unquestioned leader of the defense, had been playing with a knee injury much of the season. The Saints finally shut him down Sunday against Tampa Bay. It’s unclear if Vilma is any closer to playing this week. If he’s not, the Saints might have to again move Jo-Lonn Dunbar into the middle of their defense.

Robinson has been dealing with a stomach issue this week. Coach Sean Payton said he didn’t have a firm diagnosis yet, but Robinson may be experiencing something similar to appendicitis. If Robinson and Porter can’t play Sunday, the Saints would be very short handed at cornerback. Leigh Torrence likely would start opposite Jabari Greer and rookie Johnny Patrick, who has barely played this season, would have to take on a bigger role.

Reserve defensive end Turk McBride (ankle) also missed practice. Running back Mark Ingram (heel) returned to practice on a limited basis. Ingram has missed the last two games.

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