Rejuvenated Jonathan Vilma says it was worth taking pay cut

It's hard to imagine that any New Orleans Saints player is enjoying this offseason more than linebacker Jonathan Vilma. Although he still referred to the NFL's harsh bounty punishments as a "raw deal" on Wednesday night, he's no longer living under that dark cloud of a looming one-year suspension and a vicious legal battle against commissioner Roger Goodell.

Just as refreshing, Vilma is now fully healthy after battling through a major knee injury over the course of two full seasons.

And perhaps best of all, he's still here with the Saints.

Vilma, 31, had to take a significant pay cut to stay in New Orleans, from $6 million in salary and bonuses to $1.2 million. And that probably meant swallowing a good deal of pride for the three-time former Pro Bowler as well.

But it was worth it to Vilma, who wanted to be a part of this new, fresh start in 2013 that has created a noticeable energy and intensity inside the Saints' practice facility this offseason.

New Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan recently referred to the inspired Vilma as "the talk of the weight room and the offseason."

"I think we definitely have the intensity. And that just comes from being able to focus on football and what really matters instead of really focusing on other things," said Vilma, who spoke publicly for the first time this offseason during guard Ben Grubbs' charity softball game at Zephyr Field. "I think Sean (Payton) put it best when we had our first meeting. We're not gonna let what happened fuel us. What's gonna fuel us is our team, our intensity, our desire to win, our ability to go out there and win some games."

I've liked a lot of the moves that the Saints have made this offseason. But I'm not sure any of them impressed me more than Vilma and defensive end Will Smith's willingness to take dramatic pay cuts to stay with the team.

Sure, the writing was on the wall for both former Pro Bowlers. They were no longer producing at the level that matched their price tags, and they had no choice but to take those pay cuts if they wanted to stay employed.

But these things don't always work out so smoothly. Just ask the Chicago Bears and legendary linebacker Brian Urlacher, who's still out of work. Or the Pittsburgh Steelers and James Harrison, who is now playing for the rival Cincinnati Bengals.

I think it says a lot about the kind of guys that Vilma and Smith are. And even though I don't think they'll return to a Pro Bowl level on the field as they enter the later stages of their careers, I do think they can still be assets both on and off the field.

They're among the most respected veteran leaders in the locker room - maybe even more so after showing their dedication to staying here.

"Hey, I'm good on the money side. So it's just about winning right now," Vilma said. "And, you know, we say that all the time. But I would like to believe that most of our team really believes that. That we're a team. It's not really about individuals, it's not really about selfish, it's just about winning.

"And I think that we kind of got a raw deal last year. It is what it is. And so we want to get back out there this year."

Vilma especially can't wait to get back out there at full speed.

He is finally back to full health after suffering a knee injury in the second game of 2011. Vilma tried to play through the injury throughout that 2011 season, then he eventually had major surgery that sidelined him until Week 7 of the 2012 season. He never looked quite like himself in either season.

It's hard to predict that Vilma will be able to return to the same level he was at when he was 28 years old. But he'll at least feel better while he tries.

When the topic of his health was brought up on Wednesday, Vilma didn't even wait for the question to end.

"2010. It's been a while," Vilma said. "It's about that time, right? Yeah, I feel good. What a difference a year makes."

Vilma will also have to make the transition to a 3-4 defense, which wasn't a great fit for him when he played it for one year with the New York Jets in 2007 after they made the switch under new coach Eric Mangini.

In fact, that was a major part of the reason why Vilma was traded to the Saints in 2008 - because he wanted to get back to playing middle linebacker in a 4-3 defense, where he has always had his best success in college and the pros.

But Vilma insisted Wednesday night that he has no problem returning to that same position he played in the Jets' 3-4 - the weak-side inside linebacker spot.
And he already showed his willingness to embrace a position change with the Saints last year. When Vilma returned from his knee injury, newly-signed linebacker Curtis Lofton had taken over the middle linebacker job. So Vilma played weakside linebacker in the 4-3 and nickel linebacker, both for the first time in his career.

"I just didn't like the way we ran the 3-4 with the Jets," Vilma said. "And, you know, there's no point in going into details from way back then, but of course naturally I was going to say that. I was coming off a Pro Bowl and leading the league in tackles. So, duh. Of course I liked (the 4-3). But right now it's good. It's good."

Vilma said there are actually a lot of similarities between Ryan's defense and Mangini's defense.

"They came under pretty much the same lineage, so some of their terminology is the same and the way (Ryan) runs some of the defense is the same. It looks like he may be a little more aggressive than Mangini was. And we'll go from there," Vilma said. "You know, in New York we just didn't have the personnel. We had a small nose tackle, Dewayne Robertson, he was under 300. Our five-techniques were kind of light. So it kind of messed us up just with that respect. But the concept was good.

"We have some guys here I think that can play really well in the 3-4, we brought in a couple guys. And of course a couple guys we had from Gregg (Williams') system were kind of retro-fitted a little more for a 3-4 to stop the run (from 2009-2011). That's the big thing, stopping the run."

As for his early impressions of Ryan as both a schemer and a leader, Vilma sounded enthusiastic, though the team won't begin on-field practice sessions until next week.

"I like Rob. Rob is an old-school coach. You know, he believes in putting players in position to make plays," Vilma said. "So we're fine with (the changes). From what we've seen so far in the meetings and our install, it looks good. And it's just a matter of applying it now to the field."

When asked if he expects more aggressiveness from Ryan's scheme, Vilma said:

"You know what, you can create that one of two ways with a defense. Blitzing a lot, like Gregg used to blitz a lot. Or you can create it as far as just with the atmosphere, with Coach, his style, his demeanor, his attitude. And I think that he's getting it both ways. So we can be very aggressive with blitzing, or we can just be aggressive with our base defense and just play it well. So we'll see what happens."

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