Source: Jonathan Vilma could return for Saints’ opener

Associated Press file photo by SCOTT ISKOWITZ -- New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma watches the Saints play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from the sideline in October in Tampa, Fla.
Associated Press file photo by SCOTT ISKOWITZ -- New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma watches the Saints play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from the sideline in October in Tampa, Fla.

After undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery in mid-August, New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma’s recovery is going well, and there’s a possibility he will return for the regular-season opener against the Atlanta Falcons on Sept. 8 or shortly thereafter, a league source said Saturday.

Vilma reportedly had surgery to relieve swelling and discomfort. He had been in and out of practice before the procedure and missed all of the Saints’ preseason games.

When news broke that Vilma was headed to an operating table, there was concern among some Saints observers that the issue could threaten the linebacker’s season, if not his career. Vilma was in his fourth year with the New York Jets, the team that drafted him, when he suffered a knee injury seven games into the 2007 campaign. He needed surgery, and the Jets placed him on injured reserve.

New York subsequently traded Vilma to the Saints for a fourth-round draft pick. Vilma played in all but one game in his first three years with the Saints, getting in on 412 tackles and accounting for nine turnovers.

But in 2011, he missed five games with knee problems. He also spent the first six weeks of 2012 on the physically unable to perform list as he recovered from offseason surgery on his left knee.

Vilma recorded 67 tackles, 38 of them solo, and recovered three fumbles in 2011. Last year, while appealing a season-long suspension given to him in the wake of the bounty scandal — a punishment that was ultimately vacated — Vilma started 10 games for the Saints. He got in on 49 tackles, 21 of them solo. He also picked off a pass and scored an 18-yard touchdown on the return.

Vilma is expected to start at inside linebacker alongside Curtis Lofton in new coordinator Rob Ryan’s 3-4 defense.

In Vilma’s absence this preseason, David Hawthorne, who spent his first four years in the NFL with Seattle before coming to New Orleans in 2012, filled in. Hawthorne missed five games last season with a hamstring injury and had 20 solo tackles. He saw plenty of action in the first three exhibitions this year, accruing eight solo tackles.

Asked earlier in the preseason whether he felt he could man Vilma’s position on the first team, Hawthorne said he had “100 percent confidence” in himself.

“If I just go out there and do what I do ... everything else will take care of itself,” he said.