Training days: Discarded by Jets, Vilma gets fresh start with Saints

JACKSON, Miss. –- Jonathan Vilma is looking for a resurrection in a city that is doing the same.

Just three years ago, Vilma was a Pro Bowl linebacker in the middle of the New York Jets' defense, a star on the rise in a city filled with them. In just his second year in the NFL, he led the league in tackles and was quickly becoming a name people recognized and teams had to reckon with. But as the old coach Jerry Glanville used to say, "This is the NFL, which stands for 'Not For Long.' "

That description perhaps best explains why Vilma is now in New Orleans trying to rebuild his knee and his career with a clearer understanding of just what Glanville meant.

"I'm excited to be a part of a team that's on the up and up," Vilma said after a sweltering afternoon practice at Millsaps College. "It's a fresh start for me. I've brought nothing but positives here. It's time for me to worry about NFC opponents."

Before he can do that, however, Vilma first has to worry about having some patience, something he admits is not his strong suit. Vilma, you see, is a guy who likes to work. Normally that's an asset. At this moment, it's his greatest enemy.

The Saints' new middle linebacker is known for many things, including intelligence, athleticism, a nose for the ball and an extreme work ethic. All are traits that made him particularly attractive to the Saints, a team desperately in need of a playmaker who could plug what had become a widening hole in the middle of their defense. Vilma had fallen out of favor with the Jets because he didn't fit the mold of a 3-4 inside linebacker fast enough to suit coach Eric Mangini.

So need and opportunity met on Feb. 29, when New Orleans sent a conditional fourth-round draft choice to the Jets for a player not yet fully healthy enough to run after suffering a knee injury last October that forced him to miss the final nine games of the season. He has since rehabbed that injury and is running freely again. In his mind he is as good as new. Saints coach Sean Payton agrees.

"He's healthy," Payton said of Vilma this week. "He has no ill effects from the surgery. He's moving well."

It would appear so, but the dog days of summer are no time to test the concept. It is a time for caution, a decision that has Payton's staff carefully monitoring Vilma's workload, keeping him out of a scrimmage last weekend and out of Thursday night's opening exhibition game against the Cardinals.

Vilma has done some live work during 11-on-11 drills, where he has exhibited his stunning quickness, but a small setback with his knee early in camp caused the Saints to pull in the reins. So now he does what he can and waits impatiently to be given his helmet, fully believing when that happens he will make things happen in the middle of a 4-3 alignment he's proven in the past perfectly suits him.

That defense struggled last year without such a player, finishing 30th in the league against the pass, 26th in total defense and being alarmingly prone to giving up the kind of debilitating long gains Vilma's speed has been brought in to negate.

In 2007, the Saints allowed 15 plays of 40 yards or more, tying them for last in the NFL in that category. This was not solely the fault of middle linebacker Mark Simoneau, although a year ago Payton imported Brian Simmons to try and win the job from him. So job security is not part of his resume it seems.

Simmons failed and Simoneau remains, but problems persisted, and now it is on Vilma to show he is still the kind of middle linebacker who made 187 tackles (143 solo) and forced four fumbles on his way to the Pro Bowl in 2005. All he is asking for is the chance to prove it, a chance that will come if he can simply be patient enough to give his knee the time it needs. It is there that his first battle of New Orleans is being fought, a fight more mental than physical.

"The biggest thing is just patience," Vilma said. "That's definitely not one of my virtues. I've had to really hold back and use good judgment about when to practice. That's been the hardest thing. They're watching me pretty closely. They've been told I like to push the envelope. They've given me some leeway but I've had to swallow my pride, too.

"I didn't get to the NFL by not working hard. That's not in my nature. It's particularly hard here because I'm the new guy. If anybody on the Jets saw me take a day off they'd say, 'Oh, oh.' It's different here. They don't know me. But I have to look at the big picture. It isn't how many practices I can get to. It's being ready on Sept. 7."

That's the day the Saints open the season against divisional rival Tampa Bay at the Superdome. It is a day Vilma has, in a sense, waited two years for because it's the day he'll be back at the position God made for him.

At 6-foot-1, 230 pounds, Vilma is a classic 4-3 middle linebacker. He has the speed and range to make plays from sideline to sideline and the quick reaction time and field intelligence to smoke out the devious plans of opposing offensive coordinators and destroy them, as he did one day early in camp when he was in the face of Reggie Bush in the flat so fast Bush didn't know what to think.

Part of that is a gift, part hard work and another part the presence of a defensive line that has long been the strength of the New Orleans defense. That remained true last year and it has been bolstered this season by the drafting of big defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis and signing of free-agent pass rusher Bobby McCray.

For a middle linebacker, the presence of such a front four is a blessing. Vilma understands that better than most after having tried to play the last two seasons with massive offensive linemen coming free off the ball to challenge him.

"All I can say is thank you Mickey (Loomis, the Saints general manager), thank you Mr. (Tom) Benson (the Saints' owner), thank you Sean Payton," Vilma said. "They make your job a whole lot easier. In a 3-4, linemen get to the second level a lot faster so they want bigger linebackers who can take them on, sit there and hold the point. Guys 250, 260.

"In the 4-3 you want quicker guys who can penetrate and create a new line of scrimmage behind the original one. I wanted to be part of the Jets' 3-4 scheme but it didn't work out. I think I could have played it but it was going to take some time to get adjusted. I didn't get that time."

Vilma started every game he played in but two for the Jets, including the last two seasons in the 3-4. But Mangini made clear he was looking for bigger inside backers and that even a playmaker like Vilma wouldn't long fit his plans.

So when his agent asked permission to seek a trade last winter and it was granted, he knew it would soon be time to pack. Now he's here, sweating in the Mississippi heat along with unfamiliar teammates, trying to win a job in part by, for the moment, not working too hard at it.

"It's unnatural not to be playing football now," Vilma said. "I was hurt last October. This is the longest time not playing football in my life.

Camp: Jackson, Miss./Metairie, La.

Preseason games:
Aug. 7: at Arizona, 8 p.m. ET

Aug. 16: Houston, 8 p.m. ET

Aug. 23: at Cincinnati, 7:35 p.m. ET

Aug. 28: Miami, 8 p.m. ET

"When we first got here I worked 10 practices but then there was a little setback and they slowed me down. It's tough when they say, 'Take a day off.' From high school to college to the NFL I definitely didn't take days off."

Before long he'll be back at full speed, although he says he now has no timetable when because the one he designed to get him ready for camp is already out the window. So instead he has fixated on the only date that really counts in the NFL –- game day.

"I don't know if I need to play in a preseason game to be ready," Vilma said. "I want it to see how I'll react full-go. It would feel good. But I don't know that I need it.

"All I really know is I'm not playing Thursday night but I'm not thinking about that. I'm not thinking about my knee either. I'm just thinking about the Buccaneers."

If anyone on Jon Gruden's staff ever saw Vilma play middle linebacker, they're thinking about him, too.

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