|Vilma pleased with new start in New Orleans|
|Written by Admin|
|Tuesday, 05 August 2008 13:55|
There's no hint of bitterness when the former Pro Bowl linebacker and two-time defensive captain discusses how and why his value to the Jets plummeted after Eric Mangini took over as head coach two years ago.
``It ended up working out better for both sides, me coming here,'' Vilma said after a recent training camp practice with his new team, the New Orleans Saints. ``I don't have any regrets.''
Vilma was the Jets' first-round draft pick in 2004 and became an immediate star. After making 118 tackles and three interceptions in his first season, he was named the Associated Press defensive rookie of the year. The next season, he was in on 187 tackles and was selected for the Pro Bowl.
In 2006, however, Mangini was hired and replaced the Jets' three-linebacker scheme with a four-linebacker formation that he knew from his time as an assistant with New England.
``Mangini came in and that's what he was accustomed to,'' said Vilma, who had never played in a 3-4 defense. ``He had won Super Bowls in that defense, so you can't fault him for wanting to go with that.''
The switch required Vilma, who is 6-foot-1, 230-pounds, to take on blocks from offensive linemen who easily outweighed him. What he lacked in size he sought to make up in quickness. Still, he wasn't the dominant linebacker he had been when he played behind four down linemen, who ate up more blockers at the line of scrimmage.
Vilma's tackle total fell to 116 in his third season, slightly lower than in his rookie year. Last year, a serious knee injury forced him to miss the last nine weeks of the season.
Vilma sensed he needed a change, and asked the Jets for permission to seek a trade. The Jets agreed, and Vilma lobbied for a deal with the Saints, who use the 4-3 alignment in which Vilma had thrived both in college at Miami and in his first two pro seasons.
New York accommodated Vilma, trading him to the Saints for a fourth-round pick and the possibility of a second- or third-round pick in 2009 if Vilma reaches certain playing incentives and signs an extension with New Orleans after this season, the final season on his current contract.
Vilma said it was more than the Saints' defensive system that attracted him to New Orleans.
``I looked at what happened last year when they started off 0-4 and ended the season (7-9),'' Vilma said. ``You do that and it says a lot about the character of your team, the character of the guys in the locker room. ... That really appealed to me, knowing that you got guys who care about their performance, about winning. And when those are the top priorities - winning and performing well - you can fix all the other things.''
The Saints saw Vilma as a player whose combination of talent and intelligence could help on the field and in the locker room.
Growing up in the Miami area, Vilma was taught to value education by his parents, who were Haitian immigrants.
His father, an accountant, told him he couldn't play football unless he had good grades. By the time he enrolled at Miami on a football scholarship, he needed little prodding to pursue a degree in finance.
``You're getting a free education. You might as well make the most of it,'' said Vilma, who now offers seminars to fellow pro athletes on managing their money and also lectures high school athletes on the importance of education.
Saints defensive captain and strongside linebacker Scott Fujita, who has undergraduate and graduate degrees from Cal-Berkeley, was impressed with Vilma right away.
``I know he's sharp,'' Fujita said. ``I could tell that the first time I talked to him.''
Vilma also has an interest in foreign languages. He speaks some German and grew up hearing his parents speak Creole French, which makes him a natural fit for New Orleans from a cultural standpoint as well.
Fujita said the Saints are eager to see how Vilma can help solidify their defense and don't worry about why they were able to acquire him without giving up much to the Jets.
``I feel fortunate for us to be in a position to bring in a guy like that and it's not a huge risk,'' Fujita said. ``Everybody knows the kind of production he had on the field in the past and everyone's excited about that.''
Vilma has been limited in practice during the early days of training camp and he won't play in the Saints' first exhibition game Thursday night in Arizona, which frustrates him. However, he said he is committed to being ready by opening day on Sept. 7, even if that means resting more than he would like now.
``If anybody on the Jets ever saw me take a day off, they were like, 'Uh-oh, what's wrong?' They knew that's not my style,'' Vilma said. ``The guys here don't know that. Hopefully, they'll get to know that.''