The 2017 regular season begins on a Monday night in Minneapolis, MN for the New Orleans Saints. On September 11, just 51 days from now, the Saints will play the Minnesota Vikings in the season opener for both teams. Canal Street Chronicles continues our countdown to kickoff series by looking back at a couple of the great New Orleans players that have worn the No. 51.
Whitney Paul (LB, 1982-1985)
Paul came to the Saints in the preseason of 1982 after spending his first seven years with the Kansas City Chiefs. He made an instant impact in coach Bum Phillips' aggressive defense. Despite not officially starting a game in the strike shortened '82 season, Paul had 3 sacks and an interception in just 9 contests. He did start all 32 of the New Orleans games over the next two seasons, continuing his success with 2 interceptions and 5.5 sacks in 1983, then a career high 9.5 sacks during the '84 season. After adding 5 more sacks in 1985, Paul departed New Orleans to play the final year of his career back in Kansas City the following season.
Sam Mills (LB, 1986-1994)
Mills began the first 3 years of his professional football career as an all-star linebacker an two-time league champion for the Philadelphia, then Baltimore Stars of the USFL. As the spring pro league was folding, Mills followed his former Stars coach Jim Mora to the NFL, and the New Orleans Saints. He was second on the team in tackles in that very first season, a feat that Mills managed to repeat in almost every season of his 12-year NFL career. Mora's linebacking foursome of Mills, Vaughan Johnson, Pat Swilling, and Rickey Jackson came to be known as "The Dome Patrol", a unit that dominated offenses through the late 1980's into the early 1990's. Mills was the playcalling leader of the group, matching his football intellect up against the offensive playcallers of the league, while utilizing his underrated athletic ability to make plays. Mills was voted to his first Pro Bowl in 1987, a magical year where the Saints achieved the first winning season and playoff berth in it's 20-year existence.
The accomplishments certainly did not end there for the linebacker deemed 'to small' to be successful by NFL experts. Mills would earn Pro Bowl recognition four times during his Saints career, including twice as First team All Pro. He amassed nearly 1,000 recorded tackles, intercepted 4 passes, notched 10.5 quarterback sacks, forced or recovered 33 fumbles and scored 2 defensive touchdowns. Mills joined the Carolina Panthers in 1995 as a free agent, being the final member of the Dome Patrol to sadly leave New Orleans. In Carolina, Mills would earn another All-Pro nod, having his number retired with them following his retirement in 1997. Mills sadly passed away from cancer in April, 2005. Sam Mills was voted onto the NFL's All-Decade Team of the 1990s, a unanimous selection to the Saints 45th Anniversary team, and elected into the Saints Hall of Fame in 1998. Truly one of the greatest to wear a Saints uniform, there are some that believe that Mills is also worthy of the highest recognition available to a professional football player, the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Jonathan Vilma (LB, 2008-2013)
Vilma, a former 1st round draft choice by the New York Jets that played 4 seasons with them, was acquired in a trade where the Saints only surrendered a 4th round draft pick. Vilma became an instant leader on the New Orleans defense, and started 47 of 48 games in his first three years with the Saints. He led the team in tackles each of those 3 years, along with registering the most passes defensed among linebackers, earning Pro Bowl berths in both 2009 and 2010. Vilma was near the top of his game during the Saints 2009 Super Bowl championship season. His 3 interceptions matched a career best, as did his 2 sacks at the time as well as 8 passes defensed.
A key interception of Vikings quarterback Brett Favre in the NFC title game helped propel the Saints to their first ever Super Bowl appearance, and Vilma followed that up by leading the Saints in tackles during their Super Bowl victory over the Colts. Injuries began to mount for Vilma after the 2010 season, causing him to miss a handful of games through both 2011 and 2012. He was one of the primary Saints players implicated in the "Bounty Gate" scandal, causing Vilma legal battles just to keep him on the football field (his original suspension of 1 year was ultimately overturned due to unfounded evidence by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell). A knee injury limited Vilma to just 1 game during the 2013 season, and ultimately forced his retirement. In spring of 2017, it was announced that Jonathan Vilma would be one of 2 new inductees into the Saints Hall of Fame, rightfully taking his place alongside the all-time greats in franchise history.
Linebacker Manti Te'o will enter his first year as a Saint, wearing No. 51, in 2017. Te'o joins New Orleans after an injury-riddled 4-year career as a San Diego Charger. The team hopes that Te'o will add a speed element to the linebacking corps that has somewhat been lacking in recent seasons.
Other Saints players that have worn No. 51: Jim Fraser (1968), Bill Saul (1969), John Didion (1971-74), Sylvester Croom (1975), Rusty Chambers (1975-76), Warren Capone (1976), Ron Crosby (1978), Stan Holloway (1980), Larry McCoy (1987), Ron Childs (1995), Derrick Barnes (1997), Phil Clarke (1999-2000), Brian Williams (2001), Bryan Cox (2002), Terrence Melton (2004-06), Brian Simmons (2007), Jeff Schoettmer (2016)
Who was your favorite Saints player to wear No. 51?
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