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Wednesday, May 2, 2012
Saints good at LB, but need DE help

By Pat Yasinskas

As severe as the New Orleans Saints’ player suspensions were for their three-year bounty program, they’re not entirely devastating.

Middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma was suspended for the entire 2012 season and defensive end Will Smith will be suspended for the first four games. That’s all, as far as current Saints go. Defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, now with Green Bay, drew an eight-game suspension and linebacker Scott Fujita, now with Cleveland, will be suspended for the first three games of the season.

Jonathan Vilma
Jonathan Vilma had a down season in 2011, collecting 54 tackles in 11 games.
But let’s stick to the current Saints and how this latest news impacts them. There’s no doubt Vilma’s suspension is severe. But the overall news wasn’t as bad as it could have been. The NFL initially said 22 to 27 players were involved in the bounty program and there was fear many more current Saints could end up with suspensions.

But only Vilma and Smith ended up drawing suspensions. Those two have been defensive leaders for the Saints in recent years, but their suspensions aren’t going to gut the New Orleans defense.

The Saints had spent the offseason bracing for a possible lengthy suspension for Vilma, although I suspect the full season is about half a season longer than what the Saints suspected. But they were proactive at linebacker. They went out and got free agent Curtis Lofton from Atlanta. They also added David Hawthorne from Seattle and Chris Chamberlain from St. Louis.

Let’s be real honest here. As great as Vilma was in the Saints' 2009 Super Bowl season and maybe even in 2010, he had a down year in 2011. He tried to play through a knee injury before finally having knee surgery that kept him out for five games. Even after his return, Vilma wasn’t the same player he was in earlier seasons.

Plug Lofton, who is younger and healthier, in as the starting middle linebacker and the Saints may have an upgraded linebacker corps. Hawthorne and Chamberlain also can play outside and they’ll compete with Scott Shanle, Jonathan Casillas, Martez Wilson and Will Herring for playing time. The Saints are pretty well set at linebacker.

Defensive end is another story and the Saints will have to get through contests against the Redskins, Panthers, Chiefs and Packers without Smith, who led the team with 6.5 sacks last season. That will be a challenge, especially in a system in which new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo likes to get the bulk of his pass rush from the front four.

Smith is the only member of the front four with a proven track record of getting pressure on quarterbacks. Cameron Jordan, who had one sack as a rookie, was projected as a starter even before Smith’s suspension. The Saints could go with Turk McBride or Junior Galette (or a combination of the two) at the other end spot.

But it also is entirely possible the Saints will try to find another defensive end (or two) in free agency.