In possibly the most shocking story of the offseason, with two days to go before their season opener against the Redskins, the Saints found out yesterday that the players suspended in their bounty scandal would be reinstated as the suspensions were overturned by an appeals court. The coaches and front office members who were originally suspended will still be suspended, but the appeals court determined that the NFL did not have enough evidence to suspend the players, in what has to be one of the biggest challenges to his authority in Roger Goodell’s tenure as NFL Commissioner. Goodell and the rest of the NFL front office will now have to come up with sufficient evidence to suspend the players allegedly involved, if they chose to continue to try to discipline those players they believe are guilty of wrongdoing.
While this is obviously a huge moral victory for the players, especially Jonathan Vilma, the most vocal protestor of the suspensions and a player who was set to miss the entire season with suspension, the timing is still bittersweet. Vilma has been away from the team for most of the offseason with a new defensive coaching staff coming in, has been replaced by free agents David Hawthorne and Curtis Lofton, and has had 3 knee surgeries since November, so he’s not only in no position to make any kind of early season impact, but he’s no longer really needed by the team.
The Saints placed Vilma, a declining 30 year old player, on the reserve/PUP list, which means he’ll have to sit out at least the first 6 games of the season. He’ll get to collect game checks, which he wouldn’t have ordinarily been able to, but his chances of making any positive impact for the Saints this season is pretty limited. ProFootballFocus’ 51st ranked middle linebacker out of 53 in 2011, Vilma is owed 5.9 million next season and, after taking a pay cut just to stay on the roster this season, this year might be his last in a Saints uniform, if he even plays at all. Still with a stigma attached to his name, whether the allegations are true or not, it’ll be interesting to see if he would get any interest on the open market as a 31 year old next offseason.
As for Will Smith, he was only going to be suspended for 4 games, so he’s been practicing with the team and does have a chance to suit up for the Saints this weekend. Smith wasn’t great last season, with 7 sacks, 7 quarterback hits, and 34 quarterback pressures on 630 pass rush snaps, including playoffs, a respectable, but not great 9.2% pass rush rate, but this team was the league’s worst rated pass rushing team last season in terms of pass rush productivity (sacks + .75 hits + .75 pressures/total pass rush snaps). They may have had 33 sacks, not a terrible number, but they blitzed more than any team in the league to do even that. With Smith, Junior Galette, a talented situational pass rusher last season, 2nd year player Cameron Jordan, and defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who is great with pass rushers, the Saints may have enough to take advantage of a Redskins offensive line that looked terrible in the preseason and ranked 28th in pass blocking efficiency last season.
Anthony Hargrove, another suspended player, is currently not on a roster after being cut by the Packers last month, while Scott Fujita is the only formerly suspended player currently on a roster other than the Saints’. Fujita was set to miss the first 3 games of the season and has not practiced all week, but the Browns may start him out of desperation. Missing starter Chris Gocong and top reserve James-Michael Johnson, the Browns were originally going to start undrafted rookie LJ Fort and career backup and special teamer Kaluka Maiava at 2 of their 3 linebacker spot this week, which would have put them at a major disadvantage against a tough matchup in the Eagles.