Hoping to close the book on bounties, the NFL suspended New Orleans Saints defensive captain Jonathan Vilma without pay for all of next season Wednesday and gave shorter bans to three other players for their leading roles in the team’s cash-for-hits system that knocked key opponents out of games from 2009-11.

Defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, now with the Green Bay Packers, was suspended for the first half of the 16-game season; Saints defensive end Will Smith was barred for the opening four games; and linebacker Scott Fujita, now with the Cleveland Browns, will miss the first three games of 2012. Like Vilma, they were suspended without pay, costing each hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The league said its investigation showed “a significant number of players participated” in the bounties — by ponying up cash or collecting it — but noted that “the players disciplined participated at a different and more significant level.” Add the losses of Vilma and Smith to the previously announced suspension of head coach Sean Payton for all of 2012, along with shorter penalties for GM Mickey Loomis and assistant coach Joe Vitt, and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell came down hard on the Saints ahead of a season that will end with New Orleans hosting the Super Bowl.

As attention to concussions has increased in recent seasons, Goodell has emphasized the importance of player safety via rules enforcement and threats of fines or suspensions. The NFL is facing dozens of lawsuits brought by more than 1,000 former players who say the league didn’t do enough to warn them about — or shield them from — the dangers of head injuries.

If Goodell aims to move on from the bounty case, the NFL Players Association might not let him: The suspended players have three days to appeal, and NFLPA head DeMaurice Smith said the union would fight the ruling. Fujita is a member of the NFLPA’s executive committee who has spoken out in the past about the need for the league to do a better job of protecting players.

Through his agent, Vilma issued a statement saying he is “shocked and extremely disappointed” by the punishment and denying he was a bounty ringleader.

“I never set out to intentionally hurt any player and never enticed any teammate to intentionally hurt another player. I also never put any money into a bounty pool or helped to create a bounty pool intended to pay out money for injuring other players,” Vilma said. “I intend to fight this injustice, to defend my reputation, to stand up for my team and my profession, and to send a clear signal to the commissioner that the process has failed, to the detriment of me, my teammates, the New Orleans Saints and the game.”

Smith said the union “has still not received any detailed or specific evidence from the league of these specific players’ involvement in an alleged pay-to-injure program. We have made it clear that punishment without evidence is not fair. We have spoken with our players and their representatives, and we will vigorously protect and pursue all options on their behalf.”

The NFL said its investigation determined the Saints ran a bounty system for three seasons, with thousands of dollars offered for big hits that sidelined opponents. Originally, the league said 22 to 27 defensive players were involved in the illegal scheme, which was orchestrated by then-Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and started in the season New Orleans won its only Super Bowl championship.

Targeted players included quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton, Brett Favre and Kurt Warner. “Knockouts” were worth $1,500 and “cart-offs” $1,000, with payments doubled or tripled for the playoffs.

“In assessing player discipline, I focused on players who were in leadership positions at the Saints; contributed a particularly large sum of money toward the program; specifically contributed to a bounty on an opposing player; demonstrated a clear intent to participate in a program that potentially injured opposing players; sought rewards for doing so; and/or obstructed the 2010 investigation,” Goodell said in a statement.

According to the league, Vilma, a linebacker, offered $10,000 in cash to any player who knocked then-Cardinals quarterback Warner out of a playoff game at the end of the 2009 season, and the same amount for knocking then-Vikings quarterback Favre out of that season’s NFC championship game. The Saints were flagged for roughing Favre twice in that game, and the league later said they should have received another penalty for a brutal high-low hit from two players that hurt Favre’s ankle. He was able to finish the game but the Saints won in overtime en route to the NFL title.

Vilma will miss out on $1.6 million in base salary in 2012, while Fujita stands to lose more than $640,000, Hargrove more than $385,000 and Smith more than $190,000. Some of their contracts were restructured this offseason, perhaps in anticipation of the punishments.

The Saints, Browns and Packers already have made personnel moves that could help fill the gaps. The Saints signed three linebackers in free agency; the Packers, who also will be without defensive end Mike Neal for four games because he violated the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances, drafted two defensive linemen last week; and the Browns drafted two linebackers.

BUCS: Paralyzed defensive tackle Eric LeGrand signed with Tampa Bay.

LeGrand broke two vertebrae and suffered a serious spinal cord injury on Oct. 16, 2010, during a kickoff return against Army. His coach at Rutgers then, Greg Schiano, now is coach of the Bucs.