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Saints LB Vilma wants to play more against Denver

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Saints LB Vilma wants to play more against Denver

METAIRIE, La. (AP) New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma hopes to play a bigger role on the Saints' defense in his second game of the season.

Playing for the first time while appealing his season-long suspension for his role in the New Orleans' bounty program, Vilma played 18 snaps last Sunday against Tampa Bay.

``I felt a little rusty, especially with the new defense, getting used to some of the new guys on the team and not being around them,'' he said. ``I didn't get a chance to practice in OTAs or training camp or preseason, so for me this is a crash course in everything - the new defense, the new guys, playing, getting into shape.''

The fact that he is playing at all is somewhat surprising.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended him for the season in May. Even after he got a reprieve two days before the season opener against Washington when a three-man appeals panel vacated that suspension and asked Goodell to clarify the rationale, the Saints placed Vilma on the Physically Unable to Perform list due to a lingering left knee problem.

Goodell suspended him again on Oct. 9. Vilma declined Friday to talk about any bounty-related topics leading into his appeals hearing Tuesday with former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who will decide whether to uphold Goodell's ruling.

Vilma readily talked about his health and playing against the Broncos.

He said his knee, and his entire body, held up very well after the Tampa Bay game. He did not make a tackle but had one deflection and forced a near interception by pressuring Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman as New Orleans won its second in row, 35-28, after losing its first four.

``It's a great feeling,'' Vilma said. ``Aside from all the other stuff going on outside of football, it was just really good to get our second victory. We're starting to play a little bit better. We're definitely playing a lot harder with a lot more conviction, and it shows on the field.''

Vilma played almost exclusively in the nickel package and never at his accustomed middle linebacker spot. Curtis Lofton, the Saints' leading tackler, took over that role soon after he signed in March.

But just having Vilma on the field can help the Saints' struggling defense, which ranks last in the NFL in yards allowed.

``Leadership is something that you really can't coach and really can't fake,'' safety Malcolm Jenkins said. ``He's a great, natural-born leader, so whenever he steps out there his presence does bring a sense of leadership that you really can't get out of other people.''

For the first time since 2008, when the NFL allowed a defensive player on each team to wear a headset connected to a coach on the sideline, Vilma went without the earpiece against Tampa Bay. That did not stop him from dictating formations while he played.

``I don't have the headset, so that's different,'' Vilma said. ``But lining up the guys, making checks and all that, that never changes.''

The headset was the only part he did not enjoy about playing middle linebacker for former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.

``I'm actually kind of relieved,'' Vilma said. ``Gregg used to tell me like a million things and wouldn't tell me the play, and then finally he'd tell me the play with like five seconds left. I'm in my own world now. I'm not in Gregg's world. I'm in my head.''

He will face one of the headiest NFL quarterbacks in Denver's Peyton Manning on Sunday. Because he is playing in the nickel, and because teams usually defend the Broncos' no-huddle offense in nickel formations, Vilma's play count should rise significantly.

The last time the Saints played Manning, they beat him and the Indianapolis Colts 31-17 in Super Bowl XLIV. Saints interim coach Joe Vitt estimated this week Vilma called defensive audibles in that game about 45 percent of the time, matching wits with Manning.

Despite his rustiness, Vilma can't wait for another opportunity.

``I'm dead serious - unless they take me out, I'm staying in,'' he said. ``I'll find a way to make some plays.''

Notes: Vitt said tight end Jimmy Graham, who has a sprained right ankle, would be a game-time decision. Graham was limited in practice all week after missing the Tampa Bay game. Said Graham: ``I think I'm ready now, and hopefully they'll allow me to play.'' . Vitt labeled linebacker David Hawthorne a game-time decision, too. Hawthorne has missed three straight games after hurting his right hamstring against Kansas City.

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Wizards GM search: Resetting the potential candidates

Wizards GM search: Resetting the potential candidates

The Wizards general manager search reset needs a reset.

We head into the holiday weekend with the local NBA team still lacking a permanent front office leader. Zero reports of interviews of any kind since last week’s meeting with Nuggets President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly.

At least we can cross off the idea of flirting with Portland’s Neil Olshey. The Blazers’ President of Basketball reportedly signed an extension one day after NBC Sports Washington reported interest from the Wizards.

For now, we wait, though be prepared for a hire any day – or not. At this point, here are the names to consider.

Tommy Sheppard – The Wizards VP of Basketball Operations began running the show on an interim basis following the firing of President of Basketball Operations on April 2. That he’s making the calls from inside the house, running the pre-draft process and showing a Wizards world with him in charge gives Sheppard an inside track over all other candidates.

To call him the favorite, however, might be a stretch at this point based simply on the fact that he has not been hired despite his in-house status. Sheppard is well respected around the NBA and league voices would tell frustrated fans they shouldn’t consider him Grunfeld 2.0.

Theory: If Sheppard gets the nod, the Wizards promote Go-Go general manager Pops Mensah-Bonsu to serve as Sheppard’s number two and then promote the benefits of their G-League investment beyond player development.

Troy Weaver –The Thunder assistant general manager met with the Wizards twice. Weaver, long considered a rising front-office star, worked with Wizards coach Scott Brooks in Oklahoma City and flashed his recruiting skills at Syracuse when he landed Carmelo Anthony. The D.C. native still has ties to the area.

Danny Ferry – Like Weaver, Ferry met with the Wizards twice in Washington. Throughout the search process, multiple league sources told NBC Sports Washington that the former Hawks and Cavaliers general manager is the best candidate for the Wizards’ opening even over Connelly. The Hawks won 60 games during the 2014-15 season and reached the Eastern Conference Finals.

Some question the strength of his candidacy based on any lingering controversy stemming from comments he made as Hawks GM regarding Luol Deng’s heritage in 2014, of which an independent investigation stated Ferry's intentions were not racially motivatedThis week former Georgetown coach John Thompson Jr. vouched for Ferry’s character on a local radio show.

Neither Ferry nor Weaver was likely to have heard back from the Wizards since Connelly’s involvement as of mid-week, according to sources familiar with the situation. Like the rest of us, they wait for news. 

Larry Harris – There’s no official reporting linking the Wizards to Golden State’s assistant GM. Washington and New Orleans both used the same consultant, Mike Forde, during their front office searches. Many of the same people have interviewed for both jobs. Harris, the former Bucks GM who joined the Warriors in 2008, met with New Orleans before the playoffs began.

That the Wizards appear patient with their search may suggest they are waiting for someone still in the playoffs.

Masai Ujiri – Speaking of an executive whose team is still in the playoffs… Ujiri’s Raptors are one game away from reaching the NBA Finals. NBC Sports Washington previously reported Ujiri showed interest in Washington. However, expectations of high salary demands and compensation from the Raptors for their President of Basketball Operations stunted any serious movement.

Bonus names -- Bucks assistant GM Milt Newton was part of the Wizards front office from 2003 to 2013. … Celtics assistant GM Mike Zarren was deemed a candidate by the New York Times early in the process. One Boston-based source believes that Zarren would prefer remaining with the team he grew up rooting for rather than pursue most open GM jobs. … Spurs assistant GM Brian Wright, another D.C. area native, just completed his third year with San Antonio. 

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Nationals win despite having to turn to little-known pitcher for pivotal start

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Nationals win despite having to turn to little-known pitcher for pivotal start

WASHINGTON -- If any bump was coming from a return home or Mike Rizzo’s public pregame words or simply being out of New York, it was not apparent Friday.

Three errors committed in the first four innings. The first reliever into the game, Joe Ross, allowed three earned runs before recording a second out. Starter Kyle McGowin barely made it through the fourth inning of an eventual and desperately needed 12-10 win.

The rally kept the Nationals from creeping toward of new level of dubiousness in this muck-filled season. They pushed 2 ½ games in front of the Marlins for the National League’s worst record. Juan Soto hit a three-run homer in the eighth. Matt Adams followed with a solo homer. Sean Doolittle had trouble, but closed the game. Those efforts kept this from being another story about the bullpen (five more runs allowed Friday).

So, here’s a different question to ponder (there are a million or none, depending on point of view) after Friday night: How did the Nationals end up with 27-year-old McGowin starting a surprisingly pivotal game?

The nuts-and-bolts version is because of injuries. Both Anibal Sanchez -- who threw a simulation game Friday -- and Jeremy Hellickson are on the injured list. The deeper answer comes from looking at the recent erosion of pitchers in Washington’s minor-league system.

McGowin made his second career start Friday because there is no one else. No hot minor-league prospect, no early-round pick who has been up and down and received another shot, no veteran stashed in the minor leagues for such situations.

Looming behind all of this is the 2016 trade of three pitching prospects to acquire Adam Eaton. Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning were all sent to Chicago for Eaton’s advanced-stats and cost-friendly contract. The departure of three starting pitchers in one shot reverberated Friday when the Nationals were forced to use McGowin in a spot start as the seventh starter of the season.

This is more a volume than quality issue. Neither Lopez or Giolito were effective in limited chances at the major-league level with Washington before being traded. Once in Chicago, Giolito became arguably the worst pitcher in baseball in 2018. No one allowed more earned runs or walks that season. Lopez had a quality season, finishing with 3.1 WAR.

The two have reversed outcomes in 2019. Giolito has rediscovered his velocity. After throwing 100 mph in the 2015 Futures Game, his velocity caved. Giolito was down to 92-93 mph with the Nationals and, initially, Chicago. Thursday, he hit 97 mph in the ninth inning of a shutout against Houston. The outing drove his ERA down to 2.77.

Lopez is struggling. His 5.14 ERA is venturing toward Giolito’s status of a year ago. His walk total -- always the concern -- is up, as are his homers allowed.

But what Giolito and Lopez have, at age 24 and 25, respectively, is potential. Giolito, who often fussed with his mechanics in Washington, has discovered a delivery to expedite his fastball and an approach to boost the effectiveness of his changeup. Lopez’s 2018 showed he can be a solid back-end rotation member. They were expected to follow behind Erick Fedde and Joe Ross in establishing a future rotation. But, those two are in Chicago, Ross is in the bullpen, where he gave up three runs Friday, and Fedde just returned to the rotation after being moved to the bullpen.

So, it was McGowin on the mound Friday. Four innings, six hits, five runs, one walk, two strikeouts, two home runs allowed. Why? No better choice is available.

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