NEW ORLEANS — Jonathan Casillas was tantalizingly close to rising from the ranks of the undrafted to an NFL starter in a mere two seasons, only to have a freak injury in the last exhibition game of 2010 relegate him to rehab.
Now Casillas can only hope the NFL lockout won't set him back too much as he tries to prove to the New Orleans Saints that he deserves another shot to start at outside linebacker.
"Of course it's going to hinder it," Casillas said of the lockout's effect on his comeback from a broken foot. "Everybody's going to be hindered."
Casillas has been unable to get treatment and continue his rehabilitation at Saints headquarters since the lockout began March 11. So, aside from some brief trips back to his home state of New Jersey, he has remained in New Orleans, seeing specialists on his own and taking part in the players-only practices organized by Saints quarterback Drew Brees at Tulane.
Casillas said he has felt good during workouts with teammates and that none of the running or agility work has been a problem. If there are any lingering limitations that might affect him in a game, he is not aware of them.
"We haven't played football yet. You never really know until you get out there and start doing things like that," Casillas said. "I'm taking my time. I'm not in a rush to do anything football-related as of right now, you know, given the lockout situation."
A 6-fooot-1, 230-pound former standout at Wisconsin, Casillas was the only rookie free-agent to earn a spot on the Saints' 2009 roster. He wound up playing in 11 games, even starting twice. He also got into all three playoff games, including the Saints' Super Bowl triumph over Indianapolis.
Not long after the Saints held their championship parade, strong-side linebacker Scott Fujita left in free agency for Cleveland, meaning the Saints would need a new starter in 2010.
Although Casillas played on the weak side, his performance in training camp impressed coaches enough to move Scott Shanle to the strong side and move Casillas up to starter on the weak side. The move showed promised when Casillas recorded 10 tackles in the Saints' 2010 preseason opener at New England.
"I always believed that I could play in this league, whether it be as a starter or regular contributor," Casillas said. "Going through my rookie year, playing behind Shanle, watching Fujita and learning from (middle linebacker Jonathan) Vilma — all those guys — they taught me how to be a better football player, a better professional."
Casillas continued to consolidate his spot in the lineup until going down in the preseason finale at Tennessee on Sept. 2 with a Lisfranc injury, which required the insertion of two screws in his foot and which tends to have a recovery time of seven to 12 months.
One of the screws has since been removed, but Casillas said the other will remain.
On Sept. 4, the Saints placed Casillas on injured reserve, officially ending his second season before it had really begun, and he spent the fall in rehabilitation at team headquarters.
"It was tough," Casillas said, but added that teammates and coaches "made me feel good about being around the facility, and I didn't feel like I was moping around. They made me feel good about getting back out there and that they wanted me there.
"That was much appreciated to help me get along, and I'm grateful for it and as motivated as I've ever been," Casillas continued. "I feel like it's my sophomore year in college again, when I knew I could play. I know I can get out there and be a starter and contribute to this defense, man, because I think we've got something special."