Stroud among veterans to find old form with new teams

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After two injury-plagued seasons with the Jags, Marcus Stroud has rejuvenated his career in Buffalo.

Just two years removed from his third consecutive Pro Bowl appearance with Jacksonville, defensive tackle Marcus Stroud was enveloped in doubt. Microfracture surgery to his ankle and a four-game suspension for violation of the NFL's steroid policy were bad enough. The fact that he wasn't producing worth a you-know-what in the handful of games he did play and had his season end due to another ankle injury were killers.

"I was worried," Stroud said this week. "I wasn't sure I could handle things. Then, there were a lot of people talking, saying I didn't have anything left in the tank. I did doubt myself."

So did the Jags, who traded Stroud this offseason to the Bills. Though images of ice, frosted breath and snow typically come to mind when thinking of Buffalo, for Stroud, the grass there has been greener.

"There's still a lot of gas in this tank," said Stroud, who, along with the Bills, is having a strong start to his season of reclamation.

He's not the only one.

Stroud is among a handful of veterans who, for whatever reason, were deemed expendable by one team only to flourish in new -- and in Muhsin Muhammad's case, familiar -- surroundings.

Saints Linebacker Jonathan Vilma, Jets defensive tackle Kris Jenkins, Muhammad and Stroud lead a group of former Pro Bowl players that have regained their old form or found the right team and scheme to maximize their skills and cast their teams into the playoff hunt.

The needed cog in New Orleans

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Jonathan Vilma has proven to be a good investment for the Saints.

Vilma is second in the NFL with 56 tackles, spearheading a maligned Saints defense that has shown a needed physicality and toughness over the past two games to possibly aid the potent offense to postseason play. He is doing what he did with the New York Jets for two seasons -- AFC Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2004; Pro Bowl in 2005 -- before a change in scheme in 2006 and season-ending knee surgery in 2007 made him tradable in the eyes of the team that drafted him 12th overall four years earlier.

"It's a situation that can be taken one of two ways," Vilma said. "You can take it as a personal attack on you and on yourself, the player, like the Jets gave up on me. Saying, 'they don't need me anymore.' Or, you can take it to heart and look at it as a fresh start, a fresh beginning. I'm confident enough with myself and in my ability, where I have no hard feelings or where I worry about why the Jets would trade me.

"Some guys might use something like that as motivation or have resentment. I've just said to myself, football is football and I'm going to come out and play, keep my guys focused as the signal caller and do my part in making the Saints better."

While proclaiming no ill will toward the Jets, Vilma did acknowledge he was motivated to shed the questions regarding his health and effectiveness that arose after he missed nine games last season because of knee surgery to repair a dislodged bone. He said that he also wanted to replicate the success he had as a middle linebacker in Herm Edwards' 4-3 scheme before Eric Mangini took over as head coach of the Jets in 2006 and moved him to one of two inside backers in a 3-4 scheme.

In the Saints' 4-3 front, he's shed all doubts on all counts.

"I've gone from making four or five tackles a game to double digits again and I'm helping rebuild a defense," Vilma said. "I'm doing everything I can to silence the naysayers."

A gain for the loss

While the Jets parted ways with Vilma, they bolstered their defensive interior by trading two draft picks (third- and fifth-round selections) for Jenkins. Unlike Vilma, Jenkins has flourished in a 3-4 scheme after spending his previous seven seasons in Carolina's 4-3 front. The outspoken Jenkins, 29, wore out his welcome with the Panthers, where battles with his weight and inconsistent production offset the play that earned him three Pro Bowl berths.

"I'm not as much of a loose cannon as I've been painted to be but I'm a little bit different," said Jenkins. "The only thing I've ever asked is to be respected and accepted for the type of individual that I am and the Jets have done that. It was a business decision for both teams and things are working out great."

Jenkins moved from an offset tackle in a 4-3 scheme to a space-eating, single gap-control, run-stuffer in the Jets' front. The 3-4 works best with a behemoth occupying two blockers, which enables linebackers to flow freely to the ball. At 355 pounds -- about 10 to 20 pounds more than his ideal weight in a 4-3 front -- Jenkins has been a huge factor in the Jets' third-ranked run defense (69 yards per game).

"At first I was nervous because I hadn't played that position that way and I wasn't sure how it was going to work out," Jenkins, who has 16 tackles and a sack, said. "It's worked out fine so far."

Familiar territory

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Muhsin Muhammad is happy to be back, producing for the Panthers.

No team may have needed another squad's discard as much as Carolina needed 35-year-old wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad. And Muhammad, in his 13th season, might not have needed another team as much as the Panthers, where he spent his first nine seasons.

Muhammad's return to Carolina after three marginal seasons with Chicago, has given quarterback Jake Delhomme the much-needed second receiving option to Steve Smith that has been lacking since Muhammad bolted to the Windy City in 2005. In fact, Smith, who served a two-game team suspension, is second in receptions to Muhammad, thus far, with 22 catches to 29.

For Muhammad, it's not a matter of him regaining his old form or finding some new measure of athletic prowess. It's a matter of relevance.

"In Chicago I was in a system where I was not a good fit for what (offensive coordinator) Ron Turner was trying to do," said Muhammad, who has caught more than 90 passes in three different seasons but had just 40 receptions for the Bears in 2007. "I was underutilized in that offense. When you average three attempts per game, you're not going to show what you can do.

"Coming back to Carolina, I'm in a familiar situation where I know the quarterback, I know the system. I really have an opportunity to thrive with a guy like Steve on the other side dictating a lot of the double-team matchups."

Besides on-field production, Muhammad carries significant sway in a locker room loaded with talented, but understated players.

Getting his foot back on the ground

Stroud, 30, was one of the most dominant defensive linemen in the NFL for seven seasons in Jacksonville. Paired with John Henderson, Stroud was a formidable pass rusher and run stuffer. Yet, the rigors of playing that position caught up to him, 11 games into the 2006 season. He wrecked his ankle and needed season-ending surgery.

In 2007, Stroud served a four-game suspension after failing a test for performance-enhancing drugs. Not long after his return, he reinjured his ankle and played in just nine game Stroud's image was tarnished and he was dealt to Buffalo.

The Bills have reaped the benefits. Stroud has 18 tackles -- three fewer than last season, four less than 2006 -- two sacks and has redirected four passes. The 4-1 Bills, leaders of the AFC East, have the ninth-ranked overall defense. Stroud has reestablished himself as one of the premier defensive tackles in the NFL.

"I was told that my production was down and that it might be in my best interest to seek a trade," Stroud said about his exit from Jacksonville. "I wanted to come to a place where I felt like I was wanted and Buffalo was that place. This has been good for me. In the NFL, you always have to prove yourself and I'm going to always handle my business, but it's always good to silence the naysayers."



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