A weekly look at a player whose performance must improve in 2011.
Jonathan Vilma is a good player, but I consider him an overrated player. I recognize his competitiveness and leadership skills, which put him in the cross hairs of my Pressure Point series. He must help the Saints' defense to improve in 2011 if the team is going to make a run at the Super Bowl.
I expect the Saints' defense to be improved by leaps and bounds from a year ago, but I am not certain that Vilma is a major reason for any improvement.
New Orleans' run defense and coverage were below average in 2010, and the ability to rush the quarterback was terrible. The defense did not create turnovers on par with the pace of the Saints' 2009 Super Bowl season, although expecting the Saints to maintain such a pace was probably unwise to begin with. But they need to create more than the nine interceptions they had last season, and I expect they will. The offense also put the defense in several difficult predicaments last season. Is Vilma to blame for all this below-average defensive play? Of course not. But he didn't help things, either.
As 4-3 middle linebackers go, Vilma is undersized and has never excelled taking on bigger blockers in the run game, shedding quickly and making the play. He needs to be protected and then can use his excellent vision, anticipation skills, knowledge of the game and speed to get to the ball carrier. New Orleans didn't protect Vilma well enough in 2010, and I also am starting to think that Vilma's speed, quickness and pursuit skills could be in slight decline. He just was not a very good run defender last season. As 4-3 middle linebackers go, I now see Vilma as just a middle-of-the-pack starter.
What shocked me most was that Vilma was not much of a force versus the pass. His coverage skills were just middling, and he was too often beaten. If this continues, New Orleans might have to consider taking him off the field in clear throwing situations. Maybe the Saints would give a younger linebacker like Martez Wilson, Jo-Lonn Dunbar or Jonathan Casillas a chance to shine in this capacity. Wilson is a rookie. Dunbar was in and out of the lineup last season. Casillas didn't play a snap last year because of a Lisfranc foot injury. Casillas is the one I am most excited about, but Wilson has an exciting skill set. He could become a dynamic edge pass-rusher and blitzer. Scott Shanle remains in the equation. Free agency still looms, and adding another outside linebacker to the Saints' stable seems highly possible.
Given Vilma's knowledge of the defense and opposing passing schemes, I expect him to remain on the field on throwing downs in the immediate future. However, maybe a year or two down the line -- if Vilma's game doesn't pick up -- Wilson could very well be the starter in the middle.
I expect the Saints' defense to improve drastically in 2010. The addition of the versatile Wilson could add a wonderful new tool for creative defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Johnny Patrick has the look of an instant contributor to an already deep secondary and should be a nice insurance policy if some cover men fall to injury or Patrick Robinson doesn't step up his game. Cameron Jordan could be poised for a Defensive Rookie of the Year type of season. He should immediately grab the starting left end spot opposite Will Smith and then move inside on passing downs. It is a tremendous situation for this rookie, and I expect him to thrive. I still am baffled that Jordan lasted as long as he did on draft day.
But the best addition is Shaun Rogers. When motivated, Rogers is an animal in the middle of the defense. He will he protect Vilma and, if kept fresh and used in a rotation, can dominate. He is an elite interior pass-rusher and will form an exceptional threesome on the interior on passing downs with Jordan and Sedrick Ellis, another former first-round pick, who registered six sacks last season. Ellis could be coming into his own as a player overall. Although he appears to be passed over by superior players, Anthony Hargrove could also factor in on the interior rushing the passer. Hargrove did have five sacks in 2009.
But this improvement might be in spite of Vilma instead of because of him. I am not suggesting that Vilma needs to be replaced at this point. I expect him to improve along with the defense. But I also see him as a complementary piece of this defensive puzzle now rather than a headliner.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com. Follow Matt Williamson on Twitter @WilliamsonNFL