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Saints elder statesmen on defense face fights for starting spots

NEW ORLEANS -- Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Roman Harper.

All three veteran defenders appear to have reached the crossroads of their Saintly careers in New Orleans. My sense is one, two or all three could be in danger of not being on the 53-man roster when the Saints open the season Sept. 8 at home against the defending NFC South champion Atlanta Falcons.

A red flag went up months ago when each was asked to restructure his contract to fit under the team's salary cap. Smith and Vilma had no choice - take a sizable pay cut or hit the highway. Harper's restructuring came months later, after team officials squeezed under the cap and addressed their most pressing needs in free agency.

Unquestionably, all three can still play NFL-caliber football. The question is will that happen in New Orleans in a new scheme under a new defensive coordinator on a team that still fancies itself as a Super Bowl contender, or elsewhere.

It will all shake out in training camp.

In my mind, none of the three is a lock to make the opening-game roster, not on a defense that needs to get younger, faster, hungrier and a whole lot better on every level. Each will have to earn his way on the roster unlike in years past when it was a given.

In fact, after middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, cornerbacks Keenan Lewis and Jabari Greer and probably safety Malcolm Jenkins, the other seven starting positions remain pretty fluid. My money is on defensive ends Akiem Hicks and Cam Jordan, rookie safety Kenny Vacarro and outside linebacker Junior Galette winning jobs. Nose tackle is anyone's guess and two, maybe three LB jobs are up for grabs, too.

Which brings us back to Smith, Vilma and Harper.

From a salary standpoint, each has put himself in a better position to make the team, provided he can start or contribute mightily.

-- Smith is under the most pressure with a salary cap number of $8,502,451, second only to quarterback Drew Brees ($17.4 million). Smith, who celebrated his 32nd birthday on July 4, better stay healthy and show signs in camp that he can bring it off the edge. Getting to the quarterback is Job 1 for a defense hell bent to prove last season was an aberration. The loss of free agent outside linebacker Victor Butler during an OTA in June certainly doesn't help matters.

-- Vilma ($3,832,500 against the cap) must prove he can shed blocks and be effective against the run in Ryan's 3-4. He had trouble doing both at his first NFL stop with the New York Jets, who ultimately traded him to New Orleans.

-- Harper ($3,660,000 against the cap), too, is under close scrutiny largely because he has been a liability in pass coverage. He received a $2.91 million signing bonus under terms of his renegotiated contract, suggesting Saints officials believe he can still play at a high level. Whether that comes as a starter or in a reserve role remains to be seen.

But, Harper should not look back because the competition, beginning with No. 1 draft pick Kenny Vacarro, clearly is gaining on him.

NEXT WEEK: On a team facing a number of compelling position battles, Allee-Walsh unveils his annual bubble on the eve of training camp. Rookies report to camp July 18 at the team's training facility. Veterans report July 25. On field work begins July 26.


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