METAIRIE, La. -- All-Pro safety Darren Sharper and veteran linebacker Clint Ingram expected to play central roles on a turnover-causing, playmaking defense that helped the New Orleans Saints win their first Super Bowl last season.
As the Saints began the final week of the preseason, though, it looked unlikely that either would play against the Minnesota Vikings in the season opener on Sept. 9.
Both are rehabilitating from surgery on their left knees, and neither has practiced in pads since training camp opened in late July.
Currently, they are on the physically unable to perform list. On Monday, coach Sean Payton could not even guarantee that either player would make it beyond Saturday's final cut.
"One of the scenarios is PUP, the other is active roster and the other is neither of those two, which isn't good," Payton said.
If both players remain on PUP beyond Saturday's deadline for teams to trim active rosters to the regular season maximum of 53, they won't be eligible to play for the first six weeks of the season.
"A drawback might be you might think in three weeks or two weeks they're ready to play," Payton said of leaving the players on the PUP list.
The problem is that Payton is not yet ready to estimate when Sharper or Ingram might be ready, although he did cite one reason for optimism.
"I would say in both cases last week, it was the first week where all of a sudden we felt like we started seeing, both with Clint and Darren, progress in their workouts," Payton said.
Throughout the preseason, Malcolm Jenkins, who was drafted in the first round last season as a cornerback, has started in free safety spot where last year Sharper had nine interceptions, returning three for TDs. Second-year pro Jonathan Casillas has been the new starter at linebacker, along with returning starters Jonathan Vilma and Scott Shanle.
If Sharper were to miss the regular-season opener against Minnesota, it would undermine some of the hype he helped generate in a trash talking exchange with Vikings tight end Vinsanthe Shianco via each player's Twitter account. Sharper, who had microfracture surgery after the Super Bowl, has expressed optimism about his health throughout the preseason but did not speak with reporters on Monday.
Ingram, who signed as a free agent after spending his first four seasons with Jacksonville, was expected to compete for a starting role that opened up when Scott Fujita left in free agency for Cleveland. Ingram also had microfracture surgery, which regenerates cartilage that pads the knee joint and usually requires patient rehabilitation.
"I definitely thought that I'd be out there doing something faster than I am now," Ingram said. "Talking to the doctors, it's basically having patience and letting it heal the way it's supposed to heal instead of fighting it the whole season.
"It won't be all the way where I would like it to be, I don't feel at any point in this year," Ingram said. "But I mean, once it gets to where I can get out here and do something without hurting it, I'm all for it."
The Saints must get their roster down to 75 by Tuesday afternoon. On Monday, it stood at 77 after the club brought back free agent defensive tackle Kendrick Clancy, who was with the club for the past three seasons, but missed most of 2009 with a nagging right knee injury that eventually landed him on injured reserve. Clancy, 32, had microfracture surgery as well and was seriously considering retirement when the Saints called.
"I had a nice career, can't complain," said Clancy, a former Mississippi standout who still lives in Oxford, Miss. "When (returning to the Saints) came up, I thought, let me go out here and give it a shot. I'm curious myself."
Clancy, who is 6-foot-1 and said he weighs about 310 pounds, entered 2009 as a projected starter, but lost his job to Remi Ayodele after his injury.
Clancy has had a solid reputation as a run defender throughout his career, and his return will place pressure on 2008 fifth-round draft pick DeMario Pressley and rookie fourth-round choice Al Woods.
"Stop the run -- that's how I spent 10 years in the NFL. That's what I do," Clancy said. "When you ask me if I can stop the run, my answer is, 'No doubt.' I don't do anything else. That's what I do. That's my M.O."
Notes: Payton said starting LB Jonathan Vilma, who hurt his right groin in Friday's preseason game against the San Diego Chargers, won't need surgery and likely will be able to play in the regular-season opener. However, Vilma will miss Thursday night's preseason finale at Tennessee. ... Rookie tight end and third-round draft choice Jimmy Graham practiced for the first time since injuring his right ankle on Aug. 12 at New England. ... Payton said right knee injuries to reserve safety Pierson Prioleau and reserve offensive tackle Zach Strief appear to be minor. Both were injured during Friday night's preseason game against the Chargers. Payton said they are day-to-day.
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press