Jonathan Vilma, Saints stay true to each other

Veteran inside linebacker Jonathan Vilma may have forfeited millions of dollars to remain with the New Orleans Saints, but a paycheck doesn’t measure his true value to a team and organization that stood by him throughout the bounty saga.

In fact, Vilma’s acceptance to play for $3.8 million less in base salary this season — at age 31, in a new defensive scheme, a year after emerging from a football scandal with his career intact — only proves what first-year Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan felt all along.

“I knew Jonathan was a great leader even before I got here,’’ Rob Ryan said. “There are only a few of those guys in the history of the league. You got Rodney Harrison, you got Ray Lewis and you got Jonathan Vilma.

“Those are the best leaders in football, and that’s who Jonathan Vilma is. That’s his reputation.’’

A year ago, Vilma’s reputation was sullied by his alleged involvement in the pay-for-pain scheme.

Now, with the many off-field distractions behind him, Vilma is free to focus solely on helping the much-maligned Saints defense try to redeem itself.

Though his future in New Orleans was a source of constant speculation this past offseason, he is expected to retain a starting job and play alongside inside linebacker Curtis Lofton in Ryan’s 3-4 scheme.

Vilma agreed to play this season for a base salary of $1 million (down from $4.8 million), plus a $200,000 workout bonus and a chance to make an additional $1.3 million in incentives.

“Fortunately, I’ve been blessed to do right with my money,’’ said Vilma, the 12th overall pick in the 2004 draft by the New York Jets. “For me, the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. The pay cut wasn’t that big of an issue for me. I want to be a part of something good, be a part of something special, and we always have that potential here.

“I’m still a leader and a captain, and I’m going to play as hard as I can for as long as I can. I’d say I’ve got another 10 years left in the tank. I think they’ll tell me otherwise. But for me, I’ll just keep going and going and going until they say I can’t go anymore, or my body says I can’t go anymore. One or the other.’’

Vilma, who had arthroscopic knee surgery in mid-August and is expected to return in early September, now finds himself playing in a defensive scheme that purportedly did not suit his skill set with the Jets, who traded him to New Orleans in 2008 for a fourth-round draft pick.

Vilma disagreed with his critics and said Ryan’s 3-4 alignment is different than the one in which he played under then-coach Eric Mangini.

“This defense is more aggressive than the one I played with the Jets,’’ Vilma said. “We do more things. We’re more versatile with the fronts. It’s not really a good comparison — the 3-4 here and the 3-4 with the Jets.

“This defense under coach Ryan is more similar to the one we played under (Gregg Williams from 2009-11), as far as being aggressive and multiple fronts. But (Ryan and Williams) are their own men. They have their own distinctive differences.

“But the 3-4 under coach Ryan is more similar in that respect than to the Jets.’’

Ryan dismissed the notion that Vilma might be miscast in the 3-4 defense, saying, “he is everything you want in a player.’’

“He looks like a young Jonathan Vilma,’’ Ryan said. “He’s running around hitting people. He’s one of the premier leaders in the game. He can play any defense. We had him at defensive tackle on third down (in the Black and Gold Scrimmage). It’s not the position of that player; it’s his disposition.

“I love this guy. He’s so tough. He’s a man’s man. Sundays are easy for him ... and it’s easy for him to lead. All he does is be himself. When you watch him walk around here, there is an aura around him. That just comes because of who he is. I don’t think it’s any different shine off his helmet than others, but you can see it, and you can feel it.

“And that’s who he is.’’