By BRETT MARTEL, Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Short-handed and disappointed, but hardly crippled, the New Orleans Saints may at last be able to put bounty scandals behind them and focus on putting together a fourth-straight playoff season.
When the NFL first announced as many as 27 current or ex-Saints participated in a cash-for-hits bounty program, seemingly all Saints regulars on defense faced suspensions.
As it turned out, only two current Saints — linebacker Jonathan Vilma and defensive end Will Smith — will be sanctioned. And while Vilma, a defensive captain, is slated to miss the entire season, Smith's four-game suspension still allows him to participate in training camp, as well as the final 12 regular-season games — and whatever playoff run the scandal-plagued but highly motivated Saints might make.
"We wish we had Will just like we wish we had Jonathan, but other guys will step up," Saints veteran right tackle Zach Strief said in a phone interview. "All we can do is move on and allow the process to run its course ... and I have all the confidence in the world in the guys in the locker room."
Smith said in a statement Wednesday, hours after his suspension was announced, that he planned to appeal. Vilma at first said only that he would fight what he perceived as an injustice perpetrated by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, and then said on his Twitter page Thursday he "definitely" would appeal.
If Vilma is unable to win a reduction or delay in his suspension, the Saints will still have proven players ready to step in. New Orleans signed three linebackers in free agency, including two — Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne — who have extensive experience at Vilma's middle linebacker spot.
The 6-foot, 241-pound Lofton was a second-round draft choice by the Falcons in 2008 and has started 63 of his 64 games, including all 16 last season.
The 6-foot, 236-pound Hawthorne, entering his fifth year in the NFL, has started 41 games in his last three seasons at Seattle.
With new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo bringing in his own system, Vilma would not have had much advantage over Lofton or Hawthorne in terms of experience in the system.
Also, Vilma, who turned 30 last month, is coming off his worst season with the Saints.
He missed five games in 2011 because of nagging knee problems. He finished with 54 total tackles, one quarterback hit and only one tackle for a loss with no sacks. Those numbers were way down from the Saints' Super Bowl run two seasons earlier, when Vilma led the team with 110 total tackles, had two sacks among 10 tackles for losses, had 10 QB hits and three interceptions.
If Vilma's appeal or potential legal maneuvers succeed, he may have a chance to prove he can come back and play the way he did before 2011. Otherwise, he might have to wait until the 2013 season.
At defensive end, the Saints have three players other than Smith with NFL experience: 2011 first-round pick Cam Jordan, veteran Turk McBride and third-year pro Junior Gallette. Last season, Smith was second on the club with 6 1/2 sacks, but Gallette had 4 1/2 sacks in a reserve role, showing the potential to be more productive with more playing time. Jordan started all but one game in his rookie season and will be expected to produce even more in 2012.
The Saints lost only the defensive tackles they let walk in free agency, and will have four-year starter Sedrick Ellis joining free-agent pickup Brodrick Bunkley in the middle, with veteran Tom Johnson rotating in and perhaps contributions from third-round draft choice Akiem Hicks.
The Saints still have their secondary intact with the exception of cornerback Tracy Porter, who left in free agency. However, former first-round draft choice Patrick Robinson, who led New Orleans with four interceptions last season, was expected to slide into the starting spot opposite veteran Jabari Greer.
Both of the Saints' hard-hitting safeties, Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins, were spared bounty-related suspensions. That had to come as a relief to Harper, who was flagged and fined repeatedly last season for hits that came late or around the head of players he tackled.