Saints prepare for life after Jon Vilma

Although we don't know for sure which New Orleans Saints players will be suspended -- or for how long -- for their roles in the now-infamous bounty program, it appears the team is preparing for life without Jonathan Vilma.

The three-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker has become the on-field face of the bounty scandal, having been accused by the NFL of offering $10,000 to any teammate who knocked Vikings quarterback Brett Favre out of the 2010 NFC championship game and appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated the week that magazine featured a story detailing the allegations. So it stands to reason that Vilma -- who led the Saints in tackles three straight seasons before an injury-plagued 2011 -- will draw a lengthy suspension and perhaps a large fine.

To that end, the Saints have signed three linebackers in the last two weeks. Curtis Lofton and Chris Chamberlain joined the team from Atlanta and St. Louis last month, while Seattle veteran David Hawthorne signed Tuesday.

Hawthorne has led the Seahawks in tackles each of the last two seasons, and would seem primed to replace Vilma in the middle of the Saints defense. Chamberlain essentially traded places with Jo-Lonn Dunbar, who signed with St. Louis after starting five games during Vilma's absence last season.

Although Saints general manager Mickey Loomis -- who is set to serve an eight-game suspension of his own -- has said the team has no interest in cutting ties with its veteran linebacker, Vilma hasn't helped himself with his public comments since the scandal. Among other things, he engaged in a war of words on Twitter with Sports Illustrated NFL reporter Peter King Tuesday night.

Vilma turns 30 in less than two weeks, so it would seem he's got several productive seasons ahead of him. However, he also has a history of knee injuries going back to high school.

Vilma missed most of the 2007 season -- his last with the New York Jets before being traded to New Orleans -- with a knee injury, and sat out five games with a similar problem in 2011. Though his tackle numbers have dropped for three straight seasons, he's still a productive player when healthy and has been regarded as the emotional leader of the Saints almost from the day he arrived.

Any credibility Vilma might have lost among teammates after the bounty scandal is probably overstated. Many of their reputations will wind up publicly damaged as well once NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is done handing out penalties, whenever he decides to do so.

Few outside Saints country will cry for Vilma if his days as an NFL star are over. But in reality, he's just one in a long list of villains in what has been a dirty, embarrassing chapter in Saints history.

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