Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Scott Fujita will make their mark on Week 1
By Tom Mantzouranis
Well, we've got another Week 1 storyline to examine.
An appeals panel overturned the bounty suspensions of Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma (season), free agent defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove (eight games), Saints defensive end Will Smith (four games), and Browns linebacker Scott Fujita (three games), for now at least. That means that all four are eligible to play this Sunday when the regular season kicks off in full.
While we don't yet know how long these players will be available after Sunday -- Roger Goodell could still reissue the suspensions under a different interpretation -- the Saints and Browns, and maybe even the Packers, might want to send the panel a gift basket, as they'll nothing but benefit from the decision.
For the Saints, while Jonathan Vilma has been at the forefront of the battle against Roger Goodell, he won't be playing this weekend even after the victory. Vilma is still rehabbing a knee injury, leaving Curtis Lofton where he's been offseason long -- as the team's starter at middle linebacker. However, you can rest assured that Vilma will be on the sideline Sunday when the Saints take on the Redskins, and that will provide a very tangible lift on its own. Saints players have rallied around Vilma -- a leader and team captain -- and his fight, and almost euphorically took to Twitter to express their joy over Vilma's win. Vilma's mere presence will motivate them, and add to the crazed cacophony from Saints fans in the Superdome, an already tough place for visitors to play.
Meanwhile, having Will Smith is a huge boost on the field. The team already was dealing with questionable depth at defensive end, and Smith is far and away their best pass rusher and most complete bookend. Had Smith been forced to sit out this game, New Orleans would have rolled with Turk McBride opposite of emerging second-year end Cameron Jordan. McBride is a capable complementary pass rusher, but he doesn't come close to having Smith's impact. It also would have handcuffed to some extent Steve Spagnuolo's ability to vary what the line does and who plays where. At full strength, they'll be able to move Jordan inside on passing downs more often, and pick and choose where they use specialized pass rushers Junior Gallette and Martez Wilson more selectively.
Elsewhere, the Browns get to add Fujita back to a defense that desperately needs steady experience at linebacker. With rookie fourth-rounder James-Michael Johnson out for a few weeks with an obligue injury, undrafted rookie L.J. Fort would have played the strong side against LeSean McCoy and the Eagles. Now they get back a player with 122 career starts and a Super Bowl ring. Fujita has always been one of those guys who excels despite limited athleticism, and age hasn't helped him physically. But he's incredibly smart and reliable on the field; he doesn't make a ton of highlight plays, but he does very little wrong. The Browns could certainly use someone like that in the lineup. It'll especially come in handy this week, as Fujita's smarts will help the Browns contain Michael Vick's unpredictable scrambling ability.
As for the Packers, they cut Hargrove during training camp, but could certainly bring him back if needed -- he spent most of the offseason in Green Bay, and is familiar with the defense, giving the team a known quantity if they want an extra body on the defensive line. Football season is back, and that's enough reason for the entire nation to be happy. Fans in New Orleans and Cleveland, however, are smiling a little wider Friday night.