- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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A dead piece of bone has rested in one of Jonathan Vilma's knees since high school. When it dislodged in October of last season, Vilma was put on injured reserve by the New York Jets and didn't play for them again.
It was the first time in his football career that he had a season-ending injury. Now, four months removed from surgery, Vilma, was traded to the New Orleans Saints on Friday for a conditional fourth-round choice. The Jets could receive a second- or third-round pick in 2009 depending on how much Vilma plays and if he signs a contract extension. Talks have not started on a contract extension for Vilma, who is entering the final year of his rookie deal.
"I enjoyed my four seasons with the Jets and thank them for the opportunities they gave me," Vilma said in a statement. "But this represents a new chapter in my football career and in my life and I am truly excited and fortunate to be joining a team that just a little over a year ago was one win away from appearing in the Super Bowl.
"The Jets were going one direction, and I was going a different direction," Vilma said Friday. "I'm just glad I'm getting back into a 4-3 defense. This is better for both sides."
Vilma, considered a bit undersized at linebacker, didn't fit in as well in the Jets' 3-4 scheme. Unless the nose tackle in a 3-4 occupies two blockers, the middle linebacker in a 3-4 is subject to a steady diet of blocking guards or centers pounding on his body.
Vilma, who will be 26 in April, had 118 tackles after being the No. 12 overall pick out of Miami in 2004 and being named defensive rookie of the year. He led the NFL the following season with 187 tackles, earning a Pro Bowl selection while establishing himself as one of the league's top young middle linebackers.
That changed in 2006, when the Jets switched defenses upon Mangini's arrival from New England and Vilma had just 116 tackles. He played in seven games last season before injuring his knee at Cincinnati and had 39 tackles. Meanwhile, rookie David Harris appeared to be the perfect fit for the defense, racking up a team-leading 117 tackles, including 20 in Week 9 against Washington.
The Jets decided to shop him in a trade a couple of weeks ago, with the Lions and the Saints showing the most interest. The Saints worked out a trade Friday morning; the pick in exchange for Vilma could upgrade to a third-rounder depending on how Vilma's season goes.
"What I like about New Orleans is that it is a very stable team," Vilma said. "I think the quarterback position is filled well by Drew Brees. The running game has Deuce McAllister, and Reggie Bush creates a lot of matchup problems for a defense. Marques Colston is a phenomenal receiver. I think offensively, the Saints have all the tools."
The Saints' mission this offseason is to retool their defense, and the acquisition of Vilma is a big part of that. If he's healthy, Vilma is a strong, smart middle linebacker who could set the rest of the defenders in the right position along with making plays from his position.
The Saints' defense ranked 26th in the league last season after giving up an average of 348 yards per game.
"In talking with people that are familiar with him, it is clear that he is serious and passionate about the game, that winning is something that is extremely important to him and he has leadership skills that he backs up with his play on the field," Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said. "We are aware and comfortable with his progress in returning from the injury that sidelined him for the second half of the 2007 season."
As for his health, Vilma says he should be fine short-term and long-term. Last season, neither Vilma nor the Jets made any details about his knee injury public.
"The knee is actually doing very well," he said. "I had the surgery in November, so it's about four months since the operation and it's feeling very good. I started jogging two weeks ago and I've been doing leg curls. I'm trying to take it easy."
Vilma passed all the medical tests administered by the Saints before the trade was in place.
"The knee shouldn't be a problem long-term," he said. "I just have to take care of it. There was a dead piece of bone in my knee. In the Cincinnati game, it decided to fall [away]. Unfortunately, I've never had a season-ending injury before. I'm just glad the knee is taken care of."
During his four seasons with the Jets, Vilma started 53 of 55 games he played and had 460 tackles, 2½ sacks, three fumble recoveries, five forced fumbles and 14 passes defensed.
With this trade, the Saints believe they have shored up the middle linebacker position.
The Jets also signed defensive tackle Sione Pouha to a three-year contract extension. Pouha, who showed marked improvement last season after coming back from a knee injury the previous year, had one year remaining on his rookie contract.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.
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