Commentary

Camp Confidential: Vilma expects to fill leading role on Saints' defense

He's alternating on the first team in camp, but linebacker Jonathan Vilma expects to fill a leading role in the Saints' defense, Pat Yasinskas writes.

Updated: August 18, 2008, 8:18 AM ET
By Pat Yasinskas | ESPN.com

Jeremy ShockeyAP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisNewly acquired tight end Jeremy Shockey (left), shown with QB Drew Brees, should boost an already-potent Saints passing attack.
JACKSON, Miss. -- He had been through precisely one practice with the New Orleans Saints, but Jonathan Vilma already fit perfectly.

"I'm excited for my teammates because I know we're going to be good,'' Vilma said after Thursday morning's session at Millsaps College.

That attitude, along with his ability to go sideline-to-sideline as a middle linebacker in the 4-3 defense, is precisely why the Saints traded for Vilma in the offseason. They needed a playmaker in the middle of a defense that underachieved last year, and they believe placing Vilma behind rookie defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis will solve a lot of problems.

"We have the right kind of guys in the new additions that can help us do that,'' outside linebacker Scott Fujita said. "In terms of attitude, it has to be more about us trying to dictate what the offense does rather than dictating what we do. We have to set the tempo.''

Vilma was used to setting the tempo in his days at the University of Miami and his first two years with the New York Jets. But the arrival of coach Eric Mangini in 2006 brought the 3-4 defense, a system in which Vilma's talents weren't a natural fit.

Vilma is well along the road to recovery from a knee injury, and he's alternating on the first team with Mark Simoneau early in camp. But Vilma doesn't expect to be spending much time on the second team for long.

"I don't think so, especially the way I felt at the first practice," Vilma said when asked if he felt he had to compete for a starting job. "I felt fine. For me, it's really more about learning the plays and getting used to my teammates.''

Before long, this will be Vilma's defense.

Key questions

[+] EnlargeJonathan Vilma
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisThe Saints acquired MLB Jonathan Vilma from the Jets in the offseason.
1. Will Vilma solve the problems on the defensive line and in the secondary?

Not all by himself. That's why the Saints drafted Ellis in the first round and signed defensive end Bobby McCray as a free agent from Jacksonville.

The Saints believe Ellis can provide a push in the middle that was missing last year and hope McCray can produce as a pass-rush specialist in a rotation with starting ends Will Smith and Charles Grant.

On paper, the pass rush should be better, and that should help a secondary that gave up way too many big plays last year. But there still will be adjustments in the secondary, where Kevin Kaesviharn is likely to take over as the free safety and free-agent cornerbacks Randall Gay and Aaron Glenn will compete with rookie Tracy Porter and veterans Jason Craft, Jason David, Mike McKenzie and Usama Young.

Overhauling the defensive personnel was a major emphasis in the offseason. The pieces are in place, and a more aggressive defense could put the Saints back into the playoffs.

2. Can Jeremy Shockey, often portrayed as a malcontent with the New York Giants, get along in his new environment?

It's been suggested (many times) Shockey is selfish and cares only about his statistics. But he'll get a chance to have big statistics with the Saints. New Orleans coach Sean Payton was the offensive coordinator in New York during Shockey's rookie year. This was a trade Shockey wanted, and he's starting off with a clean slate. He could thrive in an offense that also features receiver Marques Colston and running backs Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush.

Shockey also might be a better fit away from New York, where all his actions -- on and off the field -- were magnified. On Bourbon Street, where things are more laid-back, Shockey might be able to comfortably be himself.

3. Will Bush ever be a star?

On the first day of camp, Bush talked about his desire to become one of the league's "elite'' running backs this season. He might want to slow down and go a level at a time and simply be an average (or slightly above) running back. Bush will be the first to tell you he had a disappointing second season, averaging 3.7 yards a carry and 5.7 yards a catch.

As a rookie in 2006, Bush was used as a complement to McAllister, and he flashed some promise. But McAllister got hurt early last year, and Bush was unable to show he can be an every-down back. McAllister is back this year, but there are concerns about his knees and age.

The Saints would like to limit McAllister's carries and get Bush more touches. But Bush never will be the kind of back who can carry 25 or 30 times a game. The Saints need to find a balance between McAllister and Bush and put Bush in a position in which he can make the most out of his touches.

Market watch

It's too early to label wide receiver Robert Meachem a bust. A first-round pick last year, Meachem was set back by a knee injury and was practicing with a limp for most of the season. He's healthy now, and the team views this year as a fresh start.

Meachem has looked good the first few days of camp, and there's hope within the organization that he can challenge for a starting job. Colston is the No. 1 receiver, but there's uncertainty after that. David Patten is a dependable veteran, but he's 33. Devery Henderson had a chance to establish himself as a starter last year, but he had trouble with drops. Rookie Adrian Arrington is off to a nice start in camp.

With a healthy knee and no limp, Meachem might be the team's most physically talented receiver. If he can use that athleticism and show he knows the playbook, Meachem is the guy the Saints want starting opposite Colston.

Newcomer to watch

One of the more subtle moves of the offseason was the hiring of defensive line coach Ed Orgeron to replace Marion Hobby. This is Orgeron's first NFL job, but he was long regarded as one of the top defensive line coaches in the college game. Before becoming head coach at the University of Mississippi in 2004, Orgeron worked at Southern California, where he worked with future first-round picks Kenechi Udeze and Mike Patterson, and the University of Miami, where he coached the likes of Cortez Kennedy, Warren Sapp and Russell Maryland. The Saints have first-round picks invested in Smith, Grant and Ellis, and they're counting on Orgeron to draw the potential from this unit.

Observation deck

With Josh Bullocks on the physically unable to perform list, Kaesviharn appears to have the early edge at free safety. Bullocks has struggled with consistency throughout his career, and his days as a starter could be over. Kaesviharn flashed some big-play ability with the Bengals before joining the Saints last year. ... Although backup quarterback Mark Brunell is 37, he appears to have something left in his arm. ... Fullback Mike Karney is sporting a new look after dropping at least 10 pounds since last season. He's also got a Mohawk haircut. Payton, who runs one of the more grueling camps in the league, cut four days off camp at Millsaps this year. But the Saints will use two of those days at their facility in Metairie, La., to practice against Houston before hosting the Texans in a preseason game Aug. 16. ... Millsaps College, the Saints' training camp home since 2006, is now coached by former University of Alabama coach Mike DuBose.

Pat Yasinskas covers the NFL for ESPN.com.

Pat Yasinskas | email

ESPN Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter