The New Orleans Saints' plans to transition to a 3-4 defense under new coordinator Rob Ryan would seem to be bad news for linebacker Jonathan Vilma, a prototypical 4-3 middle linebacker, but coach Sean Payton said Tuesday he believes that the veteran can make the switch.
Vilma, who was a key member of the Jets' defense early in his career, was pushed out of New York when the Jets switched to a 3-4 under former coach Eric Mangini and decided he no longer fit the scheme. Vilma injured his knee during the 2007 season and was traded to the Saints before the 2008 season.
Vilma, at 230 pounds, is considered undersized to play middle linebacker in the 3-4, as a player in that position takes a pounding on his body from blocking guards and centers unless the nose tackle occupies two blockers.
Payton said in an interview with SiriusXM NFL Radio on Tuesday that he can envision Vilma playing in a weakside linebacker spot with the heavier Curtis Lofton (241 pounds) staying as a middle linebacker. He acknowledged that faces would have to change on the defense but used Vilma as an example of a player who can change with the defense.
"I think the way that we're going to run this defense and the type of 3-4 that we're running will be such that you saw in Dallas or Houston," Payton said. "There will be some under defensive principles to it. Some reduction, which means that the left guard or weak guard for the offense will be covered at times, and I think that will help a guy like Jon Vilma as opposed to the traditional two-gap 3-4 front that many Giants fans knew back when Bill Parcells was there."
He acknowledged that "there's some work to be done obviously when you make a change like this," however.
"You have the scouts who need to identify what the prototypes are for these positions different from what the scouts and everyone else in the building viewed as a prototype for the 4-3 scheme. Now there are good football players that can fit into either one, but I think it allows everyone a chance to maybe visualize what we're looking for," Payton said.
Vilma, who will turn 31 in April, was happy to hear about his coach's comments, reacting favorably through Twitter.
"Payton says he sees a role for jonathan vilma....well jonathan vilma likes what jonathan vilma's coach is talking about. Holla!
@JonVilma51," he tweeted late Tuesday night.
Vilma, however, likely will have to agree to adjust his salary to remain with the Saints, who are currently projected to be at least $14 million over the salary cap. Vilma has a base salary of $4.8 million with a cap figure of $8.6 million, according to NOLA.com. Payton, however, didn't address Vilma's salary situation in the radio interview.
A fan pointed out to Vilma on Twitter that he'd likely have to play for less money to stay, much to the linebacker's chagrin.
"Sure there's a place for Vilma...if he's willing to take a paycut," the fan tweeted, to which Vilma replied: "who invited debbie downer to the party? Smh [shaking my head]."