Saints, Packers, Browns have options to replace suspended players
The NFL handed down suspensions Wednesday to four players for their roles in the New Orleans Saints' much-publicized bounty system. Jonathan Vilma took the brunt of the punishment, receiving a season-long suspension, while Anthony Hargrove (eight games), Will Smith (four games) and Scott Fujita (three games) were punished as well.
Vilma and Smith remain members of the Saints, while Hargrove and Fujita have moved on to the Packers and Browns, respectively.
What do those suspensions mean for the three teams affected?
• New Orleans Saints: The Saints have been preparing for an extended period of Vilma-less time all offseason, which is why they went out and inked David Hawthorne, Curtis Lofton and, to a lesser extent, Chris Chamberlain in free agency. Vilma started all but one game for the Saints from 2008-10, then picked up 54 tackles in 11 starts last season.
As far as filling Vilma's specific position in the middle of new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's 4-3, Lofton figures to get the first crack. He has been a prolific tackler for the Falcons since 2008, registering 147 last season, and should have no problem putting up big numbers again, assuming Spagnuolo can get the type of production he wants out of his defensive line.
Hawthorne's a little more versatile, so the Saints may open with him on the outside to take advantage of his ability to get into the backfield. But he gives New Orleans another Vilma replacement option.
The Saints are less equipped to deal with Smith's four-game absence -- Smith has been a fixture in the New Orleans lineup since 2004. Without his disruptive presence at defensive end, Spagnuolo might have to get a little creative with his rotation.
Junior Galette has the inside track on a starting spot in Smith's absence, after a 2011 season that saw him rack up 4.5 sacks. Turk McBride, who had five sacks for the Lions in 2010 and two in just eight games last season, should help provide some depth.
The wild card in the mix? Rookie Akiem Hicks, a very raw prospect from Canada, who was the Saints' third-round draft pick. He projects more as a defensive tackle in the pros but did play defensive end in college.
• Green Bay Packers: That makes two potential defensive ends suspended for the Packers, who earlier this offseason learned that Mike Neal would have to sit out four games for violating the league's substance abuse policy. Signing Hargrove was supposed to help Green Bay overcome Neal's issue, but Neal -- if he's not cut -- will be back in the lineup long before Hargrove.
You can go ahead and pencil in Jarius Wynn as a starter at defensive end opposite Ryan Pickett, but the Packers' Round 2 theft of Jerel Worthy now looks like an even bigger boon. Green Bay also used a fourth-round compensatory pick on Iowa's Mike Daniels, who should add some depth to the rotation.
The Packers did not commit much, financially or from a scheme standpoint, to Hargrove. So while this cuts further into their roster, it's far from a killer.
• Cleveland Browns: The Browns should be well-adjusted to playing without Fujita, since he's finished the past two seasons on injured reserve. When he is in the lineup, the linebacker has been one of Cleveland's better run defenders, but he has missed a total of 13 games in two seasons. When he was out of the lineup last year, Cleveland went with a linebacking group of Chris Gocong, D'Qwell Jackson and Kaluka Maiava. Barring any trades or late signings, there's a good chance that will be the look again until Fujita returns in Week 4.