Vilma, Saints happy with marriage

METAIRIE, La. ― Jonathan Vilma didn’t beg his Saints’ coaches to put him in for practice during August two-a-days in Jackson, Miss.

But he didn’t exactly make it easy for them to willingly submit to any requests he might have had in regard to getting him into drills after coming off of knee surgery that ended his 2007 early.

“My philosophy is always go hard and whatever happens after, you’ll figure it out from there,” Vilma said. “The coaches had to be opposite and they were the opposite way with me, easing me along.

“For me, whenever I got a chance to go as hard as I could, I’d go. If they backed me off, they backed me off.”

He added, “Now I’m going a full 100 percent. It’s not an issue."

It appears a combination of methods has worked best for both Vilma and the Saints, who sent the Jets a conditional fourth-round pick that will, according to, become a third-round pick in the 2009 draft.

“…He’s also viewed by our players as one of the leaders on defense,” Saints Head Coach Sean Payton said.

The free-agent pickup has been superb in his first season with New Orleans, leading the team in tackles (119) and fumble recoveries (2) with two games to go in the Saints’ season.

Anybody who questioned if the former University of Miami and New York Jets standout would be able to play top-flight football after the surgery got their answer time and again throughout the season.

“I definitely like where I’m at,” Vilma said. “I like the way I’m playing. I see a progression in myself as the weeks have gone on. I’m excited about that and fortunately, my knee hasn’t been an issue.”

What has helped – besides surgery and the regular rehabilitation routine – is a move back to a 4-3 defense instead of the 3-4 that he was playing in with the Jets.

It’s not just New Orleans coaches and Saints fans who have noticed what Vilma is doing this season.

“When he was coming out, we really did our due diligence in Jacksonville of looking at Jonathan,” current Atlanta Head Coach Mike Smith, the former Jacksonville defensive coordinator. “He’s very intelligent. I think he has a great understanding of defensive football and I think he’s a great addition to the defense here at the Saints. I think he’s one of the top, if not the top middle linebacker in the NFC.”

Vilma is a 6-foot-1, 230-pound former first-round selection out of Miami who earned a Pro Bowl selection while with the Jets. He was the rookie of the year in 2004, finishing with 118 tackles, two sacks and three interceptions, among other stats.

His versatility is one of the things that stands out on video, Chicago Bears Head Coach Lovie Smith said.

“If you look at what linebackers have to do nowadays, guarding backs like Matt Forte, like Reggie Bush, like (Pierre) Thomas, you have to have athletic ability to do that,” Smith said. “And you have to be able to take on big linemen. You have to have strength, too, and he has both of those.”

And while New Orleans hasn’t re-signed him to a long-term contract, that could be coming. Vilma appears to have a fondness for the city and the team.

“I’m happy. No regrets,” Vilma said. “I still keep in touch with guys from New York. No hard feelings there. But I’m happy where I’m at.”