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Jonathan Vilma on Sean Payton, Aaron Rodgers and the 2023 NFL Season

05 Sep | interview | BY Jack Green | MIN READ TIME |
Jonathan Vilma on Sean Payton, Aaron Rodgers and the 2023 NFL Season
Source: Alamy Stoclk Photo

In our exclusive interview, the Super Bowl winning linebacker discusses his former teams' chances this season and the return of his former Saints teammate Jimmy Graham.

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Which teams are you looking forward to watching this season?

I’m really looking forward to the underdogs, looking for the teams that aren’t being talked about right now. Everyone talks about Mahomes and the Chiefs, and Burrow and the Bengals, and Josh Allen and Hurts, of course, and they deserve all their credit.

But I would love to see a team under the radar. The LA Chargers, in Mahomes’ division, I’d love to see how they come out and how they perform, and see if their defense can step up.

I really like the Jacksonville Jaguars. They’ve done a tremendous job, they made the playoffs last year. I would love to see how they come about and if they can make another run.

So I like looking at some of these underdog teams that really don’t have a lot of hype, a lot of media attention just yet, but all of a sudden they rip off four or five wins in a row and everyone’s going to be talking about them.

You’ve mentioned a couple of AFC teams, and there’s a clear gap between the conferences at present. Do you think anyone on the NFC side can compete with the AFC?

Oh, most definitely. The Eagles, frankly, were a Jalen Hurts turnover away from tying that Super Bowl, or winning that game, so I can definitely see them coming back and repeating against Mahomes and the Chiefs.

You look across the NFC, I really think that the Saints are going to be contenders. Derek Carr, he’s been a Pro Bowl quarterback, a top-tier quarterback for most much of his career, and so adding that component to an already top-10 defense, with Mike Thomas, Chris Olave, they’ll definitely be a formidable opponent when it’s down to the stretch and playoff time.

And then of course out in the NFC West, with Matthew Stafford being healthy, I’d love to see a rejuvenated LA Rams and how they’re going to perform.

So I think that there’s going to be a lot of healthy competition. In the NFC they don’t have as many big names at the quarterback position as the AFC, but they definitely have talented teams.

When you were in the NFL, the middle linebacker was often seen as the star of the defense. That’s not really the case in the present day – why do you think that is?

Well, the game has changed. The game has been more pass-friendly, the game is being played outside the hashes, on the numbers. It’s not being really played in between the tackles.

You have a lot of teams right now that, frankly, only run the ball just to keep you honest so that they can pass the ball some more.

Back then when I played, with the great linebackers like Ray Lewis and Zach Thomas, there were real running backs, real offenses that centered their offensive game plan around running the football, and if you could stop the run, then there really was no answer to it.

Nowadays if you stop the run, it’s frankly almost expected. You stop the run and then figure out how to defend the pass. So with that, you don’t get the linebacker recognition anymore – the tackles for losses, those one or two-yard stops, those third-and-short stuffs that everyone was accustomed to back when I played.

Now you’re seeing a lot of the middle linebackers that are in coverage, so unless you’re making a lot of plays in coverage, or you’re getting a lot of sacks or quarterback pressures, you’re not going to get that attention like we did before.

Who do you consider the top middle linebacker in the NFL currently?

I’ll give you my top one, right now. I really enjoy watching Fred Warner play for the San Francisco 49ers. I really enjoy his ability to convert very quickly from run to pass. He is equally aggressive in the run game as he is in coverage, and his skills and abilities in the passing game.

You don’t see that very often now with some of the middle linebackers. There’s a difference between making tackles and being aggressive. There are a lot of middle linebackers right now that will make tackles, but they’re not necessarily aggressive and they don’t strike fear in the opponent. Fred Warner does that.

In the run game, he stops the run, he’s aggressive when he stops the run, he tackles well and then in the passing game he’s phenomenal, so I like watching him a lot and really want young college linebackers to see what it is to play the middle linebacker position now, even against pass-happy offenses.

Your former team, the New Orleans Saints, have an elite middle linebacker in Demario Davis. Where do you think he ranks among the best in the NFL?

Well, to be very honest, I didn’t want to sound like a homer, so that’s why I didn’t bring up Demario Davis. He’s my No. 2, to be very honest, but if I said top two and started talking about Demario then everyone would say: “This guy Vilma, he’s a homer, he’s biased towards the Saints.”

But Demario, he does it all. He gets sacks, he pressures the quarterback and he does everything that Fred Warner does, but he’s actually a little bit bigger, a little bit faster, and I love watching him play.

Now, tricky question, but if you had to say who is the better Saints middle linebacker, who would you say?

It’s not tricky at all. It’s going to be Jonathan Vilma. And if anybody asks why, I’ll show them my Super Bowl ring and we’ll leave it at that.

Speaking of the Saints, you mentioned already Derek Carr coming in as the big change for the Saints this offseason. How far do you think he can take them this year?

How far can he take them? I wouldn’t be surprised at a Super Bowl run.

How far is he going to take them? As far as the defense will allow.

Derek Carr is top-10 quarterback in the NFL, he’s produced year in, year out for many years, and on those teams with the Raiders it almost felt like it was Derek Carr and nobody else.

Now he has a defense. He’s always had weapons, but now he has more weapons to work with.

So I see the Saints having expectations where Derek Carr doesn’t have to force the ball, and if he just plays within himself then the defense will take over and they’ll win a lot of games.

Then all of a sudden you find yourself winning that NFC South and you’re guaranteed hosting a playoff game. You win that, you’re in the Divisional round.

I can realistically see the Saints making it to the Divisional round and possibly farther.

You played with the greatest Saints quarterback of all time – Drew Brees – do you see any similarities between him and Carr?

The accuracy, that’s the first thing I noticed. You always look, with really good quarterbacks, not always the arm strength but you want to see the accuracy.

That’s what pops out, anticipation and accuracy.

I’ve seen from Derek Carr that he knows to throw it low and away, kind of like a baseball pitcher, so his receiver avoids the contact. Or he’s going to throw it high and outside like a baseball pitcher would as well, where if the receiver doesn’t catch it, it’s going to be incomplete, no chance for the cornerback or the defender to make a play.

That’s exactly what Drew Brees used to do. He had a good arm – wasn’t the strongest arm – but he was so accurate, anticipated so well. The saying is you throw your receiver open – that’s what both of them can do.

Do you see the Saints offense catching up with the defense this season and making them more of all-round team?

Most definitely. What I see happening is the defense setting the tone and then you have an offense that plays within themselves. They will find themselves up two scores in a game in the first quarter and all of a sudden that starts to throw the opposing offense out of whack, which plays into the Saints defense’s hands.

You see that happen with all the good teams game in, game out, all the good teams all of a sudden have the other team playing lefthanded, or playing, basically 7-on-7 football.

If you’re going to do that versus the Saints, good luck to you.

One of your old teammates is back with the Saints this year in Jimmy Graham. What was your reaction when that signing came out of nowhere?

I was so happy, and it did come out of nowhere. I was hoping he would have signed last year and end his career, have it come full circle. No better way than to come back, be a complement to the offense. You have a really good quarterback in Carr and then hopefully, hey, you get into the dance, all you got to do is just keep winning, right?

I know that on Jimmy Graham’s mind, he wants to win the Super Bowl. That that’s the only thing that matters to him. That’s the only reason he came back. 

You love to have veteran leaders like that in the locker room because he’s going to hold everyone to a higher standard, regardless of if he’s in his prime or not. Everyone has to step up their game so that they can reach their potential, which is hopefully a Super Bowl.

What was Jimmy like as a teammate in the locker room?

Oh, Jimmy was great. He’s the biggest meathead that you ever met at the tight end position. A super competitive, great teammate.

Practices, he made them harder than the game sometimes because we had to stop Jimmy Graham. We literally would call our Fridays ‘Jimmy Graham Fridays’, because that’s when he was in the red zone, he wanted to go and try to score, and high-point the ball and Moss somebody, and then dunk on the goal post. And we were having none of that.

So those competitions were great. We enjoyed it, we loved it. It made Jimmy better, it made us better.

Him as a teammate, it gets no better than someone like him on the offensive side.

You must have had to cover him a lot in practice. Was there anyone tougher to face than prime Jimmy Graham?

No, prime Jimmy Graham at the tight end position, nobody tougher than him that I faced in practice.

Where does Jimmy rank in the mix of the best offensive players you played with?

That’s a tough question. I would say as far as athleticism, top four, top three.

Reggie Bush was an extreme athlete, a superior athlete. Jimmy Graham was there as well, Marques Colson was a very good athlete.

We talk about production, Jimmy’s got to be top two. Aside from Colson, I don’t know of a player that was more productive during when he was there.

So I definitely have him in the top two, top three. I might be a little biased, but hey, it’s my story, I get to tell it.

There’s a lot of excitement around Chris Olave this season for the Saints after a great rookie season. Do you think he’s set for that breakout that people are expecting?

I don’t know about a breakout because he got a lot of attention last year. What I would say is, can he repeat the success he had? Can he build on the success he had?

And the answer is yes, 100%, yes. One, he’s a hard worker. Two, he’s a really good player.

I like those players that come out of Ohio State. They’ve had a level of professionalism about them that is really, really good and humbling to see for these young players. So in his second year I think he’s going to do very well.

And then on top of that, if he has healthy, dangerous threats around him – Jimmy Graham, Alvin Kamara, Mike Thomas – now it makes it a lot easier for him to see one-on-one coverage and then beat you down the field.

You won a Super Bowl in New Orleans. Is there any place in America that’s better to win a title? What was the week after the game like? 

The week was a blur. There was no better place. To give you a great example, we won the Super Bowl, we hopped on a flight the next morning. We celebrated, had a great time down in Miami.

We land in New Orleans, and all of the New Orleans fans came out, literally blocked the highway, created one little path for us so that they could celebrate and carry us on as we got off the plane and then drove home.

And I say a blur in a good way, the party just did not stop for about a good two weeks. We rolled right into Mardi Gras, we had our parade. It was a blast.

Sean Payton was obviously the Saints head coach at the time. How do you think he’s going to fare in Denver this season?

Sean Payton, he’s had so much success obviously with Drew Brees, but prior to that he had a lot of success with the Giants.

He had success with the Cowboys as well, and I think a lot of fans forget that. He was always a really, really good motivator. He knew how to get the most out of his players, and he’s going to do that with the Broncos.

He’s going to get the most out of the quarterback position first and foremost, and then he’s going to get the most out of that offense, and when you do that, especially going in that hard division with the other great quarterbacks that are there, you’re still going to find yourself in a nice spot late in the season to be able to make a run for the playoffs.

What’s your favorite Sean Payton story?

It’s Week 2 of our Super Bowl season, and we’re playing Philadelphia. Sean Payton was an assistant coach at Philadelphia for a while, and apparently they did not take kindly to him becoming a coach for the Giants and for the Cowboys.

So they were ultimately his worst fans, and there was no place he wanted to win more than in Philly so that we could do two bus rides: The first was to drop us off at the game, then the next bus ride was to do a nice tour around Philadelphia before heading to the airport, with the bus driver honking the horn and letting everyone know that the Saints just beat the hell out of the Eagles.

So we start the game, and he says: “Look, I don’t care what you do, just give me the ball back! I want to put 50 on them! 50!”

Well, we got him the ball back plenty of times. He didn’t get the 50, He got to about 44 points. We beat them up pretty good.

And then, after the game, he tells the bus driver: “Hey, I want you to do two laps around the stadium, make sure all the fans see us, and then do a nice long drive throughout Philly before we get to the airport, so that all these pissed off, miserable fans can see who just beat their team’s ass”

And sure enough, that’s what we did. So if anybody wanted to know the competitive nature of Sean Payton, that’s it in a nutshell.

Let’s touch on your other former team, the Jets. How far can they go with Aaron Rodgers? Is it Super Bowl or bust this season?

I don’t think it’s Super Bowl or bust. When you look at Aaron Rodgers, he’s only made the Super Bowl one time. He won it in 2010 has not been back since.

So when Jets fans start to aspire to the Super Bowl, yes, Aaron Rodgers is that caliber quarterback, and you would expect that if he’s playing well and the team’s playing well, that they will get to the Super Bowl or at least be very close to it with the competition in the AFC.

But I would not call it a lost season if the Jets make it to a Divisional round and lose to the Cincinnati Bengals, or they make it to the championship game and lose to Mahomes. 

That’s not a bad season at all, there’s no frowning or putting your head down losing to those two guys, especially if they’re playing lights out.

So, I’d say Super Bowl aspirations, I wouldn’t be shocked if they make it, but it’s not a lost season if they get somewhere close to it.

You faced Aaron Rodgers, Brady, Manning, Favre – who was the best that you faced and where does Rodgers rank? 

Wow, I can’t put a 1-2-3. I’m not dodging the answer, but the problem is that they were deadly in their own way.

Tom Brady was deadly with Gronk, Randy Moss, these guys. He was deadly not because of always going to them, he was deadly because he understood the threat that they posed and would kill us the other way by throwing to Kevin Faulk, Edelman or whoever it was. All of a sudden they end up with 100 yards receiving, and you lose the game. That was always the challenge with Brady, and if you ever slipped up and tried to switch coverage over to one of those guys, he goes right back to his main threats and then they end up with 100 yards.

Brett Favre, they called him a gunslinger, and he was similar to Drew Brees with a stronger arm, where he threw his guys open. He didn’t care who was guarding them, there was a spot that he could throw the football where either his receiver gets it or nobody gets it. He was going to throw to that spot, and more times than not that his receiver got it.

Aaron Rodgers, he’s a combination of the two. You can’t rank them because Aaron Rodgers has the gunslinger mentality, yet is smart enough and wise enough to know what defense you’re in, and he can hit somebody on the backside that’s in single coverage.

All three of them, you’re not trying to stop them, you’re just trying to slow them down. If you can slow them down, hold them to half of their usual production, then you hope for a chance to win.

The star on the other side of the ball for the Jets is Sauce Gardner right now. He’s been compared to Darrelle Revis, another great Jets cornerback. How do you think those two compare?

The only thing stopping Sauce Gardner is Sauce Gardner. If he’s going to stay consistent and he’s going to practice and commit the way that Darrelle Reeves did, he’s going to be a Hall of Fame corner 12 or 15 years from now.

As much credit as Revis gets for ‘Revis Island’ and locking down wide receivers, he doesn’t get enough credit for how hard he practiced. He doesn’t get enough credit for his ability to come up and stuff people in the run game. He doesn’t get enough credit for his consistency, always being available, always taking care of his body.

There’s ability, of course, in Sauce Gardner. It’s all the other intangibles that he is going to be mindful of, and, frankly, expected to take care of himself so that he can be consistent and be a Hall of Fame corner.

Did you ever feel like there was extra pressure when you played in New York, compared to New Orleans?

I did not notice any added pressure. I noticed that New York fans are going to be very blunt about how they feel the team is playing and the position that the team is in. I also noticed that New York fans will respect you if you are playing your hardest and giving 110 per cent.

I never had any issues with the media, never had any issues with the fans, I enjoyed the fans. We won games, we lost games. They got pissed off because we lost, so be it, but they knew that for Jonathan Vilma, everything was left on the field, and they respected that.

You experienced playing in a different country, when the Saints played the Chargers in London in 2008. What was that experience like?

The week leading up to the game was business as usual. The experience in the stadium, I’ll never forget.

I really enjoyed the fans. They were different in the sense that everything was a celebration. In New York, America, they’re a little more critical of the bad plays. They talk about those, sometimes, more than the good plays.

In Wembley Stadium it was all about the good plays. If you had a bad play it was like: “No big deal, let’s celebrate!”

It was a very, very good atmosphere. I enjoyed it a lot.

Do you think the NFL is going to continue expanding into new countries, and could you one day see a team playing permanently outside of the US?

I definitely think it could keep expanding. It’s actually going both ways – you see soccer really expanding into America, Americans embracing it, enjoying it, and European fans embracing football.

As far as a football team in Europe, I don’t see one team. It would have to be a collection of teams, because you need a division. You can’t have an unfair advantage of flying six hours every time to play an opponent in your division. I would see three or four teams, creating a division in Europe, and then they go periodically to the States to play other opponents.

Finishing off with some quickfire picks. Who’s going to win the Defensive Player of the Year award?

Aaron Donald. He’s just so disruptive. Forget the sacks, everyone looks at that. I’m looking at the attention he draws.

You’ve got 3 O-linemen that have to account for him, the quarterback always has to account for him. He changes games, every time.

How about MVP?

Joe Burrow. For, if nothing else, having a chip on his shoulder that Mahomes gets all the hype when he is equally as good, and has actually beaten him more times head-to-head. He doesn’t have the Super Bowls, though, but I see a motivated Joe Burrow.

And who’s your Super Bowl pick?

I’m going to go with the Bengals, because you don’t see teams repeat in the NFL, but truthfully, it’ll be the hottest team at the end of the season in the AFC.

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Jack Green

Jack Green

Editorial content manager who is responsible for the Insider’s golf, American sports, UFC and boxing betting content.

Jack Green

Jack Green

Editorial content manager who is responsible for the Insider’s golf, American sports, UFC and boxing betting content.