The news of the collective bargaining agreement appeals panel overturning the NFL's suspensions of four players for their involvement in the New Orleans Saints' "bounty" program could change the short- and long-term plans of multiple teams for the 2012 season.
Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove are immediately eligible to play, but NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell can go back and suspend the four players if he proves there was an intent to injure. There's no specific timetable on this, but NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said Goodell will not re-rule on the player suspensions before Sunday's games.
With that in mind, let's examine each player's potential impact:
Will Smith, DE, New Orleans Saints
Smith, who had been facing a four-game suspension, should be in uniform and ready to contribute for the Saints when they take the field Sunday afternoon against the Washington Redskins. Smith has practiced with the Saints throughout training camp and remains one of the top pass-rushing threats on the roster. With Smith back in the lineup at his right defensive end spot, the Saints can reshuffle their D-line rotation and keep more fresh bodies in the mix to get after the quarterback. This is important because New Orleans only produced 33 sacks in 2011 -- tied for 19th in the NFL -- with Smith accounting for 6.5 of those takedowns. Facing fleet-footed rookie Robert Griffin III on Sunday, Smith's return is a huge development in New Orleans.
Jonathan Vilma, LB, New Orleans Saints
Vilma will not be stepping onto the field Sunday after missing the entire offseason training program. The veteran linebacker is still recovering from a serious knee injury. He reportedly is heading to the PUP (physically unable to perform) list, which will give him plenty of time to rehab his knee, as well as learn the nuances of new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's scheme. Although the nine-year vet brings a ton of experience, savvy and football intelligence to the table, it is impossible to expect Vilma to be ready to resume his role as the traffic cop in the middle of the Saints' defense without an extended training camp to master new concepts. A six-week stint on the PUP list, though, will help him recover mentally and physically, and eventually allow him to return to the starting lineup as the unquestioned defensive leader.
Scott Fujita, LB, Cleveland Browns
Fujita could jump right back into the Browns' starting lineup for Sunday's game against the Philadelphia Eagles. He only missed a week of practice under the terms of his three-game suspension. Although Pat Shurmur typically invokes a "no practice, no play" policy on his players, the fact that Fujita is an experienced veteran with an outstanding football aptitude should eliminate any concerns about his lack of practice repetitions. He can go through a crash course on the subtleties of the game plan during the team's morning walkthrough Saturday and lean on his veteran defensive teammates when he is on the field. While that is certainly not an ideal situation, the Browns were facing the prospect of starting undrafted free-agent rookie L.J. Fort at linebacker against an explosive Philadelphia offense. Fujita offers a steady presence on the outside, so he seems like a no-brainer starter Sunday.
Anthony Hargrove, DT, free agent
Hargrove is eligible to return to game action, but he is currently without a team following his recent release from the Green Bay Packers. Although several clubs would like to add a veteran defensive tackle to the roster, the uncertainty surrounding the eventual length of Hargrove's potential suspension -- he was initially facing eight games -- could prevent a team from pulling the trigger over the next few weeks. If Commissioner Goodell doesn't render his decision soon, Hargrove will have a hard time finding a team to take a chance on him at this point.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.