HOPING TO CLOSE the book on bounties, the NFL suspended New Orleans Saints defensive captain Jonathan Vilma without pay for all of next season Wednesday and gave shorter bans to three other players for their leading roles in the team's cash-for-hits system that knocked key opponents out of games from 2009-11.
Defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, now with the Green Bay Packers, was suspended for the first half of the 16-game season; Saints defensive end Will Smith was barred for the opening four games; and linebacker Scott Fujita, now with the Cleveland Browns, will miss the first three games of 2012. Like Vilma, they were suspended without pay, costing each hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The league said its investigation showed "a significant number of players participated" in the bounties - by ponying up cash or collecting it - but noted that "the players disciplined participated at a different and more significant level." Add the losses of Vilma and Smith to the previously announced suspension of head coach Sean Payton for all of 2012, along with shorter penalties for general manager Mickey Loomis and assistant coach Joe Vitt, and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell came down hard on the Saints ahead of a season that will end with New Orleans hosting the Super Bowl.
As attention to concussions has increased in recent seasons, Goodell has emphasized the importance of player safety via rules enforcement and threats of fines or suspensions. The NFL is facing dozens of lawsuits brought by more than 1,000 former players who say the league didn't do enough to warn them about - or shield them from - the dangers of head injuries.
If Goodell aims to move on from the bounty case, the NFL Players Association might not let him: The suspended players have 3 days to appeal, and NFLPA head DeMaurice Smith said the union would fight the ruling. Fujita is a member of the NFLPA's executive committee who has spoken out in the past about the need for the league to do a better job of protecting players.
Through his agent, Vilma issued a statement saying he is "shocked and extremely disappointed" by the punishment and denying he was a bounty ringleader.
"I never set out to intentionally hurt any player and never enticed any teammate to intentionally hurt another player. I also never put any money into a bounty pool or helped to create a bounty pool intended to pay out money for injuring other players," Vilma said.
The NFL said its investigation determined the Saints ran a bounty system for three seasons, with thousands of dollars offered for big hits that sidelined opponents.
Targeted players included quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton, Brett Favre and Kurt Warner. "Knockouts" were worth $1,500 and "cart-offs" $1,000, with payments doubled or tripled for the playoffs.
Buffalo receiver David Nelson described free agent quarterback Vince Young as looking in great shape during his workout for the team. The Bills provided no update after Young met with coaches and held an on-field workout at the team's facility. The visit was Young's first this offseason in a bid to find a new team. Young was not re-signed by the Eagles after completing a 1-year contract.
* In a symbolic gesture, paralyzed defensive tackle Eric LeGrand, who played for Rutgers, has been signed by Tampa Bay. LeGrand broke two vertebrae and suffered a serious spinal cord injury on Oct. 16, 2010 during a kickoff return against Army. His coach at Rutgers then, Greg Schiano, now is coach of the Bucs.
* Torrin Tucker, a former Dallas Cowboys offensive lineman, has been accused of trying to sell marijuana to an undercover officer at a Tampa, Fla., strip club. Police say 32-year-old Tucker was arrested Tuesday night and charged with felony counts of cocaine possession with intent to sell, marijuana possession with intent to sell, delivery of marijuana and possession of a firearm during commission of a felony. He was released from jail Wednesday on $19,500 bail. According to an arrest report, Tucker was working security at the Hollywood Nights strip club April 18 when he allegedly sold a $20 bag of marijuana to the undercover officer.
* Chicago agreed to a 4-year contract with second-round draft pick Alshon Jeffery, a receiver out of South Carolina.
* Arizona State linebacker Vontaze Burfict was among 14 college free agents signed by Cincinnati. Burfict was the Pac-10 defensive freshman of the year in 2009, but his career was marred by repeated personal fouls. He also did poorly at the scouting combine, causing him to go undrafted.